Barbara Shelly

Sly James schools Missouri lawmakers

Kansas City Mayor Sly James was in a button-pushing mood Tuesday night when he addressed a Missouri legislative committee that is touring the state listening to people’s ideas about education.

“I know first hand the transformational nature of education,” James told the committee, “and I’m sick of seeing so many of our kids unable to reach their full potential because we adults have failed to do our job of providing them with a quality education.”

And then, this zinger: “ By the way, I noticed a lot more talk during this year’s session about guns than I did about education.”

Said the mayor: “If we are truly committed to education reform, then we need to stop playing politics and make the necessary investment to get the job done. That means you must be as committed to investing in education, our social infrastructure, as you are in investing in our physical infrastructure like roads and bridges. That means you defend every child’s right to have a first-class education with as much passion as you would defend every adult’s right to have a gun.”

That remark sucked the air out of the auditorium on the UMKC campus. The Missouri legislature is incredibly passionate about the right of adults to carry guns. Lawmakers spent hours and hours talking about that in last year’s session. Much longer, as James noted, than they talked about schools.

More from James, who clearly follows the legislative debate quite closely:

“Our kids are not a drain on the rest of the state,” he said. “I question the line of thinking that brown and black children would magically learn more if they were sitting in seats in suburban school districts surrounded by white kids. I refuse to believe that all our teachers care about is tenure when the reality is that teachers in our city often use their own money to buy school supplies and often have to be the teacher and the guidance counselor. I want you to consider that it is not that our families don’t care about the education of our children. Rather, the reality is that many families are juggling raising their children with working more than one job because it is so hard in the current political and economic atmosphere for middle class families to make ends meet.”

All in all, the mayor did a great job of speaking up for constituencies who tend to get beat up in Jefferson City: teachers, urban kids and parents and public schools in general.

So how did this go over with the committee? Eighteen House members were present, from all parts of the state. I was watching Republican Steve Cookson, the committee’s chair, and Casey Guernsey, both acutely conservative lawmakers from rural Missouri. They seemed more curious than defensive.

“So,” Guernsey asked, “was there a reform bill that we worked on that you supported?”

James replied, accurately, that education bills in Jefferson City tend to get loaded up “like a Christmas tree that would topple over of its own weight.”

He told legislators to work on consensus. If they want to change the system of tenure, for instance, “work with the teachers’ unions to come up with an idea. Focus on the kids, not the tenure.”

Who knows whether hearings like this one have any effect, but it’s good that lawmakers are listening. James, they said, was the first mayor to appear at one of the hearings. He certainly gave them an earful.