Peters says legal background has helped him discern importance of school bond issue

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 30, 2010

COLUMBIA – Philip Peters said he's ready to take a few pies to the face — whatever it takes for him to accomplish his goals on the Columbia School Board.

“It comes with the territory,” he said after hearing that some friends and family were worried about criticism board members face.

Philip G. Peters Jr.

2620 Westbrook Way


60. Married to Vickie Park and has two daughters, Natalie, 23, and Mackenzie, 17.


Ruth L. Hulston Professor at MU School of Law


Bachelor's degree from Harvard University; Juris Doctor from University of California-Berkeley


Enjoys spending time with his family, playing tennis, attending MU sporting events and reading 

Also involved in First Chance for Children, the Early Childhood Task Force, the Achievement Gap Task Force, the Great Expectations Committee and the Steering Committee


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Peters is running against Jonathan Sessions for a one-year seat remaining in the late Rosie Tippin's term. The election is April 6. Peters applied for Tippin's seat last spring, but the board picked James Whitt.

Peters has been concerned about primary education for years — so much so, he said, that he took a leave from his position at the MU School of Law for two years to help improve early childhood education in Columbia. The concerns sprouted when he was working on an admissions committee at the Law School, where he is currently the Ruth L. Hulston professor. In the course of research, he found a parallel between success in early childhood development and admission to higher education.

Peters directed First Chance for Children, a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Missouri Department of Social Services and the Children’s Trust Fund. It works to improve early education primarily for children in financial need. Peters started as executive director in 2008 after spending about eight years on the organization's board. The organization has worked to provide toys, books, cribs, caregivers and home visits and to improve the quality of community child care providers.

“I felt I could make the most difference if it was my day job,” he said, despite a pay cut and taking over at a time when the organization found itself losing state funding. He thinks his work navigating First Chance through financial challenges would be helpful in handling details of a $120 million bond issue if voters approve it.

Among her duties at First Chance for Children, Jessie Starbuck runs the Lend and Learn Toy Library and makes home visits to kids in need. She worked with Peters for a year and a half and credits him for her success and a job she enjoys.

“They all really took a risk on me, because my background’s art," she said. "I’m just so grateful that they were willing to give me guidance."

Starbuck said she was struck by Peters’ "clear vision" for First Chance and was excited to hear he was running for the School Board. She thinks he’s motivated by a couple of causes: improving early childhood education and narrowing the academic achievement gap by starting earlier to prepare children for school.

“I think what he’s really interested in is sort of waking up the early childhood institutions and getting those kids who might be falling behind a little bit more caught up before they get to school," Starbuck said. Then, continuing to give them the support once they’re in kindergarten, she said.

Lolita Lucas-Howard, executive director of Boone County Partnership, which tries to get the community more involved in helping families, met Peters a year and a half ago while working on the Lend and Learn Toy Library put together by First Chance and the Columbia Housing Authority. The two worked together until Peters went back to the Law School, where he teaches health care law.

Lucas-Howard often had conversations with Peters about early childhood education. She said he made the topic infectious. “He shines like a little light coming on,” she said.

Peters has served on the school district’s Early Childhood Task Force, the Achievement Gap Task Force, the Great Expectations Committee and, recently, the Steering Committee, which is part of a five-year Comprehensive School Improvement Plan. He and his wife, Vickie Park, were among the founders of the Columbia Public Schools Foundation, which, according to its Web site, has raised more than $500,000 for the district so far.

Their two daughters, Natalie, 23, and Mackenzie, 17, went to Columbia schools. Natalie graduated from Rock Bridge High School in 2005 and recently from her father's alma mater, Harvard University. Mackenzie is a junior at Rock Bridge. Peters credits the school district for getting them ready for college; however, he thinks the community's perception of the quality of education in the district has declined in recent years.

His bid for the board is an attempt to do something about it. He said he would bring an emphasis on evidence and a desire to understand how systems work and affect people. When approached with questions at forums across Columbia this month, more often than not, Peters has replied that he would need to look at the evidence first. 

“I have become a law professor through and through,” he said, laughing. “My priority has been to read everything I can find on what works and what doesn’t.”

He takes pride in skills he has learned through working in law: being able to listen, withhold judgment and help different people with different ideas reach agreement.

Among changes he'd like to see, Peters thinks achievement disparities can be reduced by expanding the Title I preschool program. He favors offering summer school or a longer school year at struggling elementary schools. In addition, the district needs to recruit and retain the best teachers possible. He supports the $120 million bond issue for capital projects, believing that students will come whether the schools are ready or not.

At a Columbia Missouri National Education Association forum this month, Peters said he was delighted to see that the board plans to squeeze more out of the bond funds.

Peters wants to "restore the luster" to schools. He thinks that through his experiences at First Chance and as a lawyer, he can help the district work toward that goal.

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