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Mo. NEA President Chris Guinther Talks K-12 Funding & Common Core In Exit Interview

Missouri NEA
Mo. NEA Pres. Chris Guinther

Chris Guinther is wrapping up her final month as President of the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association. She’s led the teachers’ union since 2007, and will return to the classroom full-time at Francis Howell schools in St. Charles.  St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin sat down with Guinther recently, where she talked about the challenges she says are facing Missouri’s public schools:

Some good news that reflects positively on Missouri’s public schools

“The National Teacher Hall of Fame inducted five teachers from across the nation…two of those five were Missouri public school teachers:  Darryl Johnson from Smithville, and Beth Vernon from Blue Springs…our graduation rate is up, (and) as you look at our students and their achievements across the state, they’re up…we’re looking at school districts where communities are involved in what’s happening to students, and that’s what we need to see across the state.”

What do you consider (to be) Missouri’s pressing education issues?

“I’d say funding, because funding determines so many other pieces…we are at a low level of funding, class sizes are increasing (while) support services, paraprofessionals, custodial services, nursing services, all those are decreasing…we’ve got to realize that kids are coming to school with greater challenges than they’ve ever had before, and yet the services the schools can provide, because of the decreased funding, the services are decreasing as well."

That being the case, every year we hear Gov. Nixon (D) say ‘we’re spending more on our public schools than ever before,’ (and) Republican lawmakers say ‘we’re spending more than ever before’ (while both acknowledge they’re not meeting the funding formula)…what do you think when you hear that?

“Dollars may be going up, but percentage may not be going up…when you couple that with the impact of sequestration, where federal funding is at 2004 levels, with inflation and a greater number of students, we are not at a higher level than ever before, and we have students coming to school with greater needs and challenges than ever before as well.”

What’s the answer? Higher taxes, (or) looking for some other type of revenue stream that may not involve (a) direct tax hike?

“We’ve got to engage meaningfully, not politically…we’ve got to put Missourians first, and we’ve got to put kids at the front of the line…we’ve got to get over this myth that decreasing taxes and creating corporate tax loopholes (is going) to increase the possibilities of businesses and corporations coming into our state…when a business or corporation looks at a state (or an) area, they look at the health of a community; that includes public schools, libraries, roads, infrastructure…as long as bills like House Bill 253 (tax cut) that, thank heavens the Governor has vetoed, get passed, it does not acknowledge what the real issue is…we’ve got to have true discussions about how to fund our public schools, and it is not by creating more tax breaks for the wealthy, or creating more loopholes or tax breaks for corporations…they should be looking for ways to fund our communities and not decrease them, they should be looking for ways to encourage businesses to come.”

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has been in the process of gradually implementing Common Core Standards (CCS) for the past three years, and there have been bills in the legislature that have tried to stop their implementation or at least require public hearings around the state before they’re fully implemented…what do you make of that approach?

“There’s a lot of confusion about it…what didn’t happen was enough education, enough seeking and learning about Common Core…we’re constantly told to increase the rigor for our students, and that is exactly what Common Core Standards are going to do…what’s gotten confused is the assessment part; this is going to require a new way to assess kids, but we have (also) relied too heavily on high-stakes assessment, for example, ‘No Child Left Behind’…I talked to an elementary school teacher (weeks ago), and she was excited about these standards…she said ‘what I’m being asked to teach my kids now is really pushing them to higher achievement than they’ve ever had’…and isn’t that exactly what we want to do, prepare our kids for a global community, a global society?  These are going to exactly take us there.”

When you say ‘global standards,’ someone might hear that and think ‘one-world government’ (or) some type of underhanded conspiracy to undermine America…what do you say when that gets thrown around?

“Actually what we want is global competence, and we also want (consistency for) our Missouri students, if they go to Massachusetts or California…it also gives local school districts and states flexibility…it’s not telling teachers how to teach, it’s not going to be one nationwide test; some states are choosing their own testing…these standards will help prepare our kids for a global society, but it’s not about everybody learning the same thing at the same time.”

What are Common Core Standards?

“Common Core Standards are in the areas of math and communication arts, and having some common things students should know and be able to do in certain grade levels…when we look at a 5th grader, what do we want a 5th grader to not only know, but be able to do, and have some consistency across the nation…if a child moves to another state or tries to get a job in another state, we certainly want our kids prepared to stay in Missouri if they choose to do that, or go to another state and work and be highly qualified in order to be able to do that job.”

Is there anything else you want to throw in that we may not have covered?

“I think that our two most important messages are, 1. Investing in our children in public schools is the most important investment we can make, and I think the legislature forgot that…there was a lot of rhetoric about our kids and their importance, but I think it’s time to actually prove that our kids are our priority…we’ve got kids coming to school hungry, we’ve got kids coming to school from poverty, we’ve got kids coming to school with all kinds of needs that we’ve got to have the resources to meet…2. The other important message is that we want education reform done ‘with us,’ not ‘to us’…many times, in Missouri’s legislature and Congress as well, they’re talking about changing things, but they’re talking about efforts at reform that are unproven…if they would spend time talking to educators or spend a significant amount of time in one of our schools, they would understand that what’s being talked about is not a realistic way to approach the kinds of issues and challenges our public schools are facing right now…we need their support, we need to work together, and we’re ready to work together.”

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.