WHAT OTHERS SAY: Legislature should start the clock on giving urban schoolchildren hope

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Schoolchildren are not bargaining chips.

But that is precisely what the thousands of school-age children in unaccredited school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City have become.

Those children live in school districts that are ill-equipped to provide them with the free and equal education available to their neighbors who happen to live across arbitrary boundary lines drawn decades ago.

In 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of those children and said that they have the right to attend a school district that has the ability to educate them properly. School boards, superintendents and lawmakers have stood in the way.

As the Missouri General Assembly returned to work last week, its leaders rightly recognized that it must resolve that court case — Turner v. School District of Clayton — because the educational futures of tens of thousands of schoolchildren rely on a solution.

Unfortunately, those same leaders, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, and Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, want to use the need to reach a compromise on the "Turner fix" as leverage to implement wide-ranging changes to public schools. Not all of these ideas are good or even constitutional. They include increasing the number of charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure and offering tax-credit vouchers to parents who want to use tax dollars to send children to private schools.

End the games. Children are not chess pieces.

As St. Louis educators have found, and Kansas City leaders soon will discover, there is no easy fix to this problem. Simply allowing thousands of schoolchildren to flee unaccredited school districts could undermine real progress in St. Louis while forcing suburban districts to deal with overcrowding and added costs with no time to plan. But punting, as the legislature did last year, is no option either.

So what to do? The legislature should abide by two overriding principles:

Put the children first.

Do no harm.

There is movement in St. Louis, with support in both city and suburban districts, toward a plan that would allow suburban districts to take over existing city schools — many of them empty — and operate them as charter schools. The schools might be supervised by suburban school boards or under the umbrella of the Cooperating School Districts organization.

This form of choice, applied in a unique environment, would modify the existing voluntary desegregation program in which thousands of city schoolchildren are bused to suburban schools. It would have the added benefits of avoiding additional transportation and keeping children closer to home.

In Kansas City, some leaders have proposed a more expansive idea: The city's unaccredited district would be absorbed into suburban districts. That might not be the best solution, but it's a reasonable proposal.

Both concepts could offer children in unaccredited schools more opportunity than they have now.

The legislature's role should be to create the legal environment for local solutions to work. That begins with setting a deadline for implementation and starting the clock.

Lawmakers should pass a bill that requires the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education to produce rules that would allow children in unaccredited school districts to exercise their rights to a quality education — and then let the education experts get to work.

Give them 90 days. Force the local superintendents and school boards to be prepared to act quickly so that kids no longer will be the pawns in a political debate.

Meanwhile, local leaders shouldn't wait for a break in the legislature's political playtime to forge their own solutions. St. Louis Public Schools, already making steady progress, should apply for accreditation. And surely there are brave suburban school boards that will recognize the moral obligation — and the real opportunity — to open the doors to city schoolchildren.

Waiting for the courts or a gridlocked legislature to act is not a winning strategy.

Missouri's early leaders had it right. After paying down state debts, they made funding public education the legislature's top priority. The current debate is only peripherally about funding, but money talks. Properly funding education demonstrates a commitment to all Missouri children.

It's time for state lawmakers and educational leaders to renew their commitments.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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Jimmy Bearfield January 10, 2012 | 11:53 a.m.

I don't know about STL, but the KCMO district got more than $2B via the desegregation case, and it's still a joke. Throwing more money at the problem won't fix it because doing so doesn't address the root cause: parents and students who don't value education.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 10, 2012 | 1:27 p.m.

Poverty can’t be school district’s excuse to fail:
("People who believe there's a strong connection between money spent on education and student achievement have a hard time explaining what's going on in the tiny 284-student Sausalito, California, Elementary School District. The district spends more than $12,300 per student each year-- nearly three times the state average. Students go to school in freshly painted buildings, with manicured lawns and new playground equipment. Class size is a mere 16 students per room, half that of many larger districts. The district has special instructors for art, drama, science, and computers. Yet, when it comes to student achievement, none of that seems to matter. Test scores are the lowest in Marin County; a third of the students are in special education classes; classrooms are "chaotic"; teachers are "frustrated, distressed and exhausted" and afraid to "turn their backs" on their classes...One reason, certainly, is parental influence, or lack thereof...
Their chaotic home life came with them to the classroom. Students were "disruptive, ill-trained, ill-prepared, often without the most basic academic and social skills."During the 1996-97 school year, teachers and principals called the police on 50 different occasions. According to a Marin County civil grand jury report, the district lacked strong leadership, the teachers were demoralized, and the students were so violent that the teachers feared "turning their backs" on them. Parents complained, some board school members blamed low test scores on poverty, unemployment, and drugs. But a group of concerned parents pointed out that there were schools in San Francisco and nearby San Rafael where students had just as many disadvantage and those students were doing fine.

Many people have suggested ideas for improving the schools: replacing the school board; hiring a dean and a full-time counselor for troubled children; coming up with a new curriculum; encouraging parental involvement, now close to nonexistent; and improving communication.(137) So far, however, no one has suggested solutions that might actually work. One reason is that school officials are so wedded to the notion that money is the solution to low achievement that, when they have money and it doesn't help, they don't know what to do.

In the meantime, they ignore ideas that might work. They might fire poor teachers and reward good ones with merit pay, give parents vouchers so they could send their children to private schools, or stop trying to solve the problem of dysfunctional families after the fact and look upstream for a solution--the elimination of welfare to end the resulting social chaos.")

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 10, 2012 | 2:04 p.m.

"When government decides to solve something, we have learned to be wary. The cure may not always be worse than the disease, but it is usually bigger and costs more."
-Ronald Reagan (1972)

(Reagan could have added that in addition to being large and costing a lot, the solutions frequently fail to work. For me, that's the bottom line.)

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett January 10, 2012 | 2:15 p.m.

@Ellis said:

"When government decides to solve something, we have learned to be wary. The cure may not always be worse than the disease, but it is usually bigger and costs more."
-Ronald Reagan (1972)

(Reagan could have added that in addition to being large and costing a lot, the solutions frequently fail to work. For me, that's the bottom line.)

My response: While I have agreed with Reagan 99.9% of the time, I have seldom agreed with you, Ellis, about anything. Well, let's chalk this one up to history-making, once-in-a-lifetime moment - whatta ya know? I agree with you 100% this time.

~Delcia Crockett
aka "bunny"


(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett January 10, 2012 | 2:24 p.m.

Government out, vouchers in. Let the parents decide which private school to place their child in, to meet individual potential growth and to get children off those addictive prescribed drugs that make children sit and confine. We need visual learning and active teaching. Away with the rote method, the restrictive confined barriers in learning, and into tapping into the imagination and cognitive response of the memory side of the brain. Vouchers in, and private citizens decide the course of the education of their children. The public schools have failed because we let them do it through the government. We need to bring it back to the children-focus on education and the gifted teachers who can keep those children excited and in school for the whole trek through.

(Report Comment)
Tim Dance January 10, 2012 | 4:50 p.m.

Ah vouchers, yes let the parents decide. Sounds divine. Unless you have a child with autism. (Sorry, we don't have the resources to educate your child, we are not required by law to educate them, Good luck finding a school). Or if your child needs transportation. (Sorry vouchers don't cover transportation, we are not required by law to provide it.) Or if your child has MD and is in a wheelchair (Sorry our school is in an historic building and we are going to use this fact to skirt around the ADA requirements, good luck finding a school) Yes people, life will be greater with voucher!!.....Unless you have a child with special needs. This is snake oil people, reject it.

(Report Comment)
Tim Trayle January 10, 2012 | 6:12 p.m.

What do the best educational systems in the world do?

Interesting reading (if you can stand the absurd style):

It'd be nice if people could jettison ideological notions of vouchers and the evils of big-gov't, and look beyond mere structural changes.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor January 10, 2012 | 7:33 p.m.

If you have an entire school full of students from "broken" parents, that school will not succeed.No amount of money thrown at that school will make it successful. Keeping those students together in the same school and having that school administered by another districts officials will not make that school successful. However, if you take those kids and spread them out within other schools that dont suffer from a majority of broken parents you can expect much better results. It's a shame that there are so many broken parents that are not parenting and leaving it up to the rest of us to provide an environment where their children can have a chance to succeed. It is also a shame that there are many good parents in those areas that have the deck stacked against them in their efforts. But, if we want to stop the cycle you either fix the parents or spread those kids out. That really only leaves one solution that "we" can control. You have to spread those kids out.

(Report Comment)
John Schmidt January 10, 2012 | 8:16 p.m.

Fix the parents? I hear a lot of talk about stuff like that but for the most part we avoid looking back on eugenics like it was a dark part of our history of which we are mostly ashamed. Of course, sometimes I wonder if the quality of the comments would have been improved had they...

(Report Comment)
mike mentor January 10, 2012 | 10:10 p.m.

I think your issues are spilling out...

(Report Comment)
John Schmidt January 10, 2012 | 10:35 p.m.

Oh, mot really. It's not the quality of MY comments that need the improvement. MY comments are perfect, sculpted to perfection by one who's awesomeness defies the ability of the English language to describe. However, YOUR comments...

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 11, 2012 | 5:53 a.m.

Reading the comments it occurs that if there is a solution it will NOT be a single solution. The assumption that groups of people, in this case individual schools and school systems, have been stamped out using cookie cutters is patently bogus.

This could also explain why cookie cutter style programs, imposed from the top down (often from Washington, D. C. when the actual problem is located in California) have such a poor track record of achieving results.

Lastly, things might get better if we could rid national decision making of persons who hold degrees from Harvard, Yale and Princeton. There are plenty of other good universities in this country, public and private.

(Report Comment)
frank christian January 11, 2012 | 8:09 a.m.

Ellis - Seems I must remind you again that the esteemed Henry Hyde R IL, once stated on the Congressional House of Rep. floor: How could we possibly, survive without "Haaaarrvaad"? Or something like that.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 11, 2012 | 9:40 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
Jimmy Bearfield January 11, 2012 | 11:15 a.m.

Fixing the parents absolutely needs to be an option. If you want to adopt, you have to go through an extensive process to assess whether you have the responsibility and financial means to support that child. Is it unreasonable to require comparable screening before being allowed to make a child? No more unreasonable than jailing, fining or seizing the homes of people who refuse to continue to pay the ever higher taxes necessary to deal with the problem of irresponsible parents.

(Report Comment)
John Schmidt January 11, 2012 | 11:53 a.m.

Maybe they could attach some sort of monitoring device to the members of teenagers when they reach puberty and have the police arrest them when found having sex without a permit?

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield January 11, 2012 | 12:48 p.m.

Or they could simply refuse to provide TANF, WIC, Medicaid and other benefits to people who choose to have kids without first demonstrating their ability to parent them. Those who believe that that's harsh could sign up for a list that those people could turn to for financial support without judgement.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor January 11, 2012 | 1:52 p.m.

I have seen success stories in two cases. One, when the student is removed from the environment that they are in and placed somewhere that is better equiped to provide the structure needed to prepare that student to learn. Jeremy Maclin might be a name people know that fits this situation. Second, is when the students and the parents receive services that help provide the structure needed to prepare the student for learning. This was successfully done
by the Harlem Childrens Zone. I invite anyone
interested to check out their website.

Just ask the largest private charter school operator in the nation how easy it is to step in to failing schools and turn them around with a "school centric" focus. They tried to operate 4 charters in St Louis where the public school district is failing miserably. Those charter schools are now closing or closed because they are failing.

(Report Comment)

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