Education commissioner’s emails create flap in Missouri

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has raised the ire of state teachers unions and some lawmakers after emails show she helped craft language in an anti-teacher-tenure ballot initiative financed by Rex Sinquefield.

The emails from a year ago — obtained through a Sunshine Law request by the Missouri National Education Association and first reported by The Associated Press — further stir what has been a stormy political season for Nicastro.

The commissioner is already being pulled in several directions over her recommendations to keep Kansas City Public Schools unaccredited and bring in the charter-school-supporting consulting agency CEE-Trust to develop a plan for the future of the district.

The emails show Nicastro was trading information with Kate Casas, the state policy director for the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, which was developing the ballot initiative petition. It aims to give voters the chance to take away teacher tenure and require schools to use student performance data in determining teacher pay and promotions.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education frequently will help lawmakers, lobbyists or other state departments interpret education policies in bills or other measures, but the teacher groups contend Nicastro overstepped her bounds and was not publicly transparent in helping Casas.

One issue was in how to describe the potential cost to schools for increased testing if the initiative passed.

“As we talked about yesterday,” Casas wrote in an email cited by The Associated Press, “our primary concern at this point is the fiscal note and (we) are hopeful that with the language you see here, DESE would advise the auditor’s office that there would be little to no cost to the state to implement (the initiative petition).”

Nicastro forwarded Casas’ email to the staff after omitting a paragraph that indicated Casas and Nicastro had discussed how the petition should be worded.

Nicastro ultimately advised the state auditor’s office that the potential cost to schools was “unknown.”

In a letter Friday to three Missouri teachers union chiefs that also was posted on the web page of Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Nicastro said that she had responded routinely to an outside request and that her advice did not conflict with the department’s position that it remains neutral on the topic of teacher tenure.

The department has spent several years working with the unions and other interests developing a statewide protocol for teacher evaluations. Nicastro said her intent in working with Casas was to help ensure that the initiative petition, if it were to succeed, would not undo that work.

“Given the three years we spent on the educator evaluation system,” she wrote, “…we didn’t want any potential law to derail it.”

“I don’t think that’s improper,” Casas told The Associated Press. “I do think that’s what the role of these officials should be.”

Sinquefield has spent several years urging lawmakers to pass laws that would eliminate teacher tenure, which so far have failed. Some lawmakers complained that Nicastro was aiding an attempt to circumvent the lawmakers’ work.

“Any proposed changes to public schools should be done in the light of day with the oversight of the elected representatives of Missouri’s citizens,” Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, said in a written statement. “Unelected officials, such as the commissioner, cannot be allowed to game the system.”

Nicastro’s explanation to the unions, Missouri National Education Association political director Mark Jones said, “fundamentally doesn’t address the issues of transparency of actions that occurred here.”

Nicastro told the unions she welcomes the chance to discuss their concerns more but noted that it is her responsibility to also respond to other groups.

“While we may disagree with the positions of some individuals or groups,” she said, “we should certainly respect their rights to be heard and considered.”