'Speak Your Mind' forum at Hickman centers on state schools funding

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, spoke at the first "Speak Your Mind" forum at Hickman High School in 1990, and he spoke again at the 20th anniversary forum Tuesday night on "The State of Education in Missouri."

Other panel members were Rep. Steven Webber, D-Columbia, Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher and Missouri National Education Association President Chris Guinther.

George Frissell, a Hickman English teacher, said the forum grew out of a discussion he led in his world religion class. A student suggested having a similar discussion in which students school-wide could participate, Frissell said.

Faye Sharp, a retired Hickman math teacher, helped organize the forum during the first 10 years before she retired in 2000. She said the students picked some controversial subjects over the years — "just topics that were hot at the moment."

Topics for the forums tend to be driven by current events, said forum-steering committee member Drew Gieseke, 18, a Hickman senior. Hickman senior Keller Ryan, 18, also a member of the forum-steering committee, said topic selection is usually based on survey responses from the student body, but this forum's topic was chosen by the steering committee because of concerns about education funding in the state.

Panel members each gave five-minute introductions and remarks about current education issues in Missouri, then student questions followed.

Students sometimes don't take honors courses because they worry about not making good grades. Is there a way to get students involved in these classes? Belcher said recent graduates' experiences with college admissions has shown that admission committees are now more concerned with ACT and SAT scores than with a student's core grade point average.

A recent study ranked teachers as being the primary influence on student achievement. Should there be merit pay for teachers? Kelly said the best thing about merit pay is that it rewards teachers whose students make the most progress. He then added the worst thing about merit pay is that it also tends to reward the principal's best friend. Guinther said the Missouri National Education Association doesn't support merit pay.

Rumors about class cuts at Hickman concerned one student who asked what cuts had been approved. Belcher said that it isn't possible to hold classes if there are few students interested in taking them. He said that there have been no specific decisions by the district to drop classes.

What right does the state government have to raise taxes to pay for education when there is not a constitutional guarantee to a free education? Webber said that the state government is obligated to provide public education by the Missouri state constitution.

What is collective bargaining? Guinther said collective bargaining is a right granted through a Supreme Court decision to employees, which allows them to discuss issues that impact their working conditions with employers.

Frissell said the forum series has been sponsored by several civic groups through the Partners in Education program.

Sharp recalled that when she helped organize the forums years ago, the students were courteous and asked lots of questions of the panelists.

"It's amazing that the students are keeping it up 20 years later," Sharp said.

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