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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Three cheers for Speaker Tim Jones' leadership on education

By Jane Cunningham
May 6, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Three cheers for Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones — finally, a leader with the courage to lead. Republican supporters have worked hard over the years to achieve an overwhelming supermajority in the Missouri House and Senate but have been frustrated that achievement has not translated into laws that reflect the Republican platform and principles.

One of those areas of desperate need, noted in recent articles and by Speaker Jones, is education reform. From my experience, having served as the longest standing chair of the House Education Committee since term limits, I concur.

Despite the fact that funding per student has more than doubled since the Missouri Outstanding Schools Act of 1993($4,488 per student in 1993 to $9,891 in 2009 and in the City of St. Louis Public Schools $6,850 per student in 1993 to $16,500 per student in 2009), achievement has remained flat.

With regard to those resources and the results on a national scale, President Barack Obama, calling for an overhaul of education, was quoted in an April 24 National Public Radio story, "What is at stake is nothing less than the American Dream. ... Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, ... other nations outpace us."

April 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the landmark report on American public education, "A Nation at Risk," issued by the Reagan administration. Commissioners issuing the report wrote, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. ... We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."

Chester Finn, former senior U.S. Department of Education official now heading the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, was quoted in the same NPR story, "The fact that 30 years later, despite all of the reforming, the gains are so modest, they ought to serve to energize and even panic today's policymakers."

With convincing evidence, why then are legislators turning a blind eye to this crisis? It's because we have built a monster monopoly with our tax dollars, and legislators are taking their marching orders from the purveyors of that monopoly who perpetuate the status quo — superintendents, teacher unions and school boards.

There is not an industry in the state that has more lobbyists at the Capitol than the public education industry. Legislators should be looking at the results and doing what is right by students and parents, not letting superintendents or teacher unions bully them into submission by threatening election consequences.

There are common sense reforms that have been proposed including: (1) allowing districts to lay off or rehire educators and administrators based on performance instead of seniority; (2) professional pay that reflects performance based on student learning rather than time in a classroom; and (3) parental choice to send their child to a quality school if they live in a district that is not fully accredited.

These types of reform are not owned by the Republican Party. I join with and applaud principled Democrats Martin Casas in his March 17 post, It's Time for Democrats to Stand Up for Students; Senator Jamilah Nasheed, sponsor of SB 125; former colleague Sen. Jeff Smith; Rep. Penny Hubbard; former Reps. Rodney Hubbard and Ted Hoskins and others also calling for their fellow Democrats to do what is right for students and for our country.

Republicans who can't vote for platform principles should be removed from committee positions and replaced by those with the courage to vote by the clear evidence and crying need. These members are proving they misrepresented themselves as Republicans to voters and to House leadership. Speaker Tim Jones deserves our highest praise and support for bringing discipline to those who selfishly put their own easy re-election above all else.

Jane Cunningham is a former state senator from Chesterfield.