As Missouri education officials continue to gather public comment on what the state should do to help unaccredited school districts, one sentiment became clear Wednesday night:
The public needs to have a strong voice in whatever plans are adopted.
In the second of four hearings in the latest round of attempts by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to gauge public sentiment about a variety of plans put forth so far, about 200 people showed up at the J.C. Penney Auditorium on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The sentiment of many of the nearly two dozen people who had the opportunity to speak was summed up by David Jackson, who heads the elected board for the St. Louis Public Schools: Local schools should be governed by local communities, not private companies brought in from the outside.
“Schools are being funded with your taxes,” Jackson said. “If you take away that representation, you lose it all.”
Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for Missouri, said the meeting, like one last week in Kansas City and ones scheduled for later this week in Springfield and Sikeston, was designed to get the public’s opinion on three basic questions concerning how the state can deal with unaccredited districts:
“What ideas do you like? What ideas do you not like? What ideas have you not heard that we need to consider as we move forward?”
Deputy commissioner Margie Vandeven presented details of a variety of plans proposed by education groups as well as the unaccredited districts in Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City.
Nicastro said that the state board of education will meet Monday in Jefferson City for a six-hour work session to discuss the plans and the issues they address. Then DESE will take its comments, along with the public comments gathered at the hearings plus those submitted to the department, and formulate its own plan that will be presented to the board at a meeting Feb. 18.
Then, Nicastro said, after the board considers the plan, it will be put out for public comment before a final board vote in March.
That debate comes as the General Assembly is considering several bills dealing with unaccredited districts. If passed, these bills could change the law allowing students who live in such districts to transfer to nearby accredited schools, with their home district paying the tuition and in some cases transportation bills as well.
Lawmakers are also weighing a request by the state board and Gov. Jay Nixon for an emergency $5 million to prevent Normandy from going bankrupt in April. If the supplemental money is not approved, Nicastro reiterated after the hearing Wednesday night, DESE doesn’t have funds to prevent the district from being dissolved and its students sent to finish out the school year elsewhere.
This week, Normandy and Riverview Gardens set deadlines for students who want to join the transfer program for the 2014-15 school year to sign up. By Monday’s deadline, 123 students had signed up in Normandy; several dozen have signed up so far in Riverview Gardens, which extended its deadline to Friday because of the recent bad weather.
As the debate continues in Jefferson City, Nicastro said, “We have to have an emergency plan for Normandy,” but she noted that any plan to deal with unaccredited districts must go beyond those that have that status now.
“It’ s not just Normandy or Riverview Gardens or Kansas City,” Nicastro said. “It’s every single child in the state, and I really would like Missouri to be a leader in being able to figure this out.”
Plenty of plans
Vandeven’s presentation noted that under a new state law that went into effect in August, the state school board has more latitude to deal with struggling districts on a faster timetable. The question now is how what state action should look like.
DESE has posed the question this way:
“What is the appropriate role for the state in supporting and, if necessary, intervening in unaccredited school districts?”
Going through plans from groups representing school boards, administrators, charter schools, the outside consultant CEE-Trust and the unaccredited districts themselves, Vandeven said the plans were being scrutinized based on five factors:
- Collective responsibility
- Focus on the needs of children and families
To stress the urgency involved, she noted that the achievement gap in Missouri is still growing. Of the more than 62,000 students in struggling districts in the state, fewer than 30 percent of them are scoring proficient in state tests. The result, she said, is that students are not prepared to graduate ready for college or a career, which is one of the state’s main goals for public schools.
Details of the plans differ. Some call for a statewide improvement district to take control of underachieving districts, an approach that others have criticized as creating an education ghetto.
Some plans call for nonprofit school operators to take over struggling schools or districts, while others stress the importance of local governance.
On the issue of transfers, some plans keep the current options open to students who live in unaccredited districts, while others limit the choices that such students would have.
'Make our schools great again'
The sentiment of those who gave their opinions at Wednesday night’s meeting was strongly in favor of retaining local control of schools, rather than bringing in outside private companies. They also want to make sure they have the resources they need to improve.
“I don’t really understand how you can fix something when you take the funding and the means of fixing it out,” said David Burden, who said he was a parent like many others in the auditorium.
Darice Murray said she wanted to make sure she had a voice in what happens in the schools in her area.
“What happens to us?” she asked. “I live in this community. I believe I have the right to vote for my schools.”
Added Brian Jackson, president of the Board of Aldermen in Beverly Hills: “The bottom line is: Somebody stands to make a lot of money.”
Racial factors were also raised by several speakers.
William Douthit, an attorney who has been active in the litigation that led to the voluntary desegregation plan between St. Louis and St. Louis County, said that solutions need to be fashioned that help black children.
“There should be no school reform plans developed with schools serving black children without continuing, substantive, comprehensive two-way conversation with the black community,” he said, “both its members and its organizations.”
Terry Artis, a member of the Normandy School Board, raised the question of whether the tests used to determine districts’ accreditation status are biased against black children.
He quoted the aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein, that if you judge a fish only by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it is stupid.
And gesturing toward Nicastro and members of the state board of education sitting in the front row, Artis asked:
“Has anyone considered the idea that maybe DESE should be unaccredited, and maybe the state school board should be replaced with a special administrative board?”
Dave Hilliard, who heads the Wyman Center in St. Louis, pointed out the role that poverty plays in the problems of Normandy, Riverview Gardens and other districts with a high percentage of students from poor families.
“We have strong families in Normandy,” he said, “and we have some families in Normandy that are not so strong. We’re coming up with solutions that address the wrong expectations. I don’t think we can have successful schools anywhere in this country until we think about how we can eliminate poverty.”
That sentiment was echoed by Victoria Valle, a resident of Glen Echo Park and a retired college administrator.
“The universal thing that we know in higher education,” she said, “is that no matter how smart a kid is, if that kid is poor, they have less of a chance of graduating from college than the not-as-bright, slow rich kid.”
Mary Vetter, a retired teacher and administrator, urged DESE not to make children feel that the system of public education has failed them.
Instead, she said, it must come up with a plan that helps all kids succeed.
“Make our schools great again,” she said.
And Niejel Northern said the privatization that charter schools would bring would not be an option that helps all kids and gives their parents the power they deserve.
“What’s the plan?” he asked. “We don’t know. But we can guarantee you this: If we are not included, then we need to boycott this whole system.”
Susan Turk, an activist in the St. Louis Public Schools system, ended with a plea that the state work with local communities and with elected school boards, not turn underachieving schools over to outside, private companies to run.
“Then,” she said, “you might see something good happen for our kids."