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Superintendents list recommended school changes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - As lawmakers, educators and others prepare for what shapes up to be a lively discussion about changes in Missouri classrooms, St. Louis area superintendents say they would like to see more money directed to struggling schools so that students could learn where they live rather than having to travel elsewhere.

A position paper released by Cooperating School Districts, and used as a model for recommendations to be made by a statewide group of school superintendents, has a 10-point plan that addresses the transfers from Normandy and Riverview Gardens schools this fall and the problems that have resulted.

Don Senti, executive director of CSD, told the Beacon Friday that the document addresses the underlying problems that lead to districts losing accreditation and the resulting student transfers that Missouri law allows. Moving students around isn’t the answer to improving education overall, he said.

“Eighty percent of the kids don’t leave,” Senti said. “So you have a policy that affects 20 percent of the kids whose parents fill out the forms and stand in line.

“Choice works for kids who leave. Choice doesn’t work for the vast majority of kids who don’t leave. If you want to educate all kids, like we do in the United States, school choice is not the long-term answer. It may be a short-term remedy, but it’s not a long-term solution.”

(Later Friday, CSD announced it had changed its name to EducationPlus.)

Better answers, the document says, include:

  • Fully funding Missouri’s school foundation formula, with additional resources for districts where students are not doing well.
  • Accrediting individual schools rather school districts.
  • Spelling out criteria for where students in unaccredited districts may transfer, including distance, safety and tuition, with preference given to contiguous districts.
  • Encouraging accredited schools to provide support for unaccredited ones.
  • Modifying the accreditation process, so that schools that are making progress are recognized.
  • Maintaining local control of schools, so they can decide how many transfer students they can accept and plan accordingly.

Underlying all of the recommendations, Senti said, is making sure that all schools are strong, so families don’t have to seek a good education far from where they live. The St. Louis area’s experience with the voluntary school desegregation plan shows how that emphasis is the right one, he said.
“Most Americans think choice causes competition and things will get better,” he said. “Choice works with restaurants and service stations, in the market place. But we’ve had 35 years with the voluntary transfer program. The St. Louis Public Schools have gotten better, but they’re not better because of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

“The idea that moving kids and resources from a sending district is going to somehow help them is ludicrous.”

Moving beyond choice

The CSD document says that to improve education in Missouri, the state has to make sure that intervention is quicker and more effective than it has been in the past once a school or a district is shown to be underperforming.

“Toward that end,” the position paper says, “the state should take actions that improve school districts, improve individual schools, and build communities, such as encouraging economic development, supporting new instructional programs, providing assistance for unaccredited schools, directing new sources of revenue to schools and refining the accreditation process.”

Citing research that says 60 percent of a student’s achievement is explained by factors outside of the classroom, the document notes that “teachers are the most important factor within schools, but their impact pales in comparison with that of student backgrounds, families and other issues beyond their control.”

By strengthening local schools instead of sending students in unaccredited districts elsewhere, CSD said families can be more involved in their children’s schooling, students can take part more fully in extracurricular activities and transportation time and expense can be reduced.

When educators find that a school is struggling, “business as usual in that school must change,” the position paper says. State education officials should step in with goals for improvement and monitor progress toward those goals. 

A model for such action should include:

  • Clear goals, assessed at least four times a year.
  • A curriculum that is clear and aligned with state standards.
  • A program to make sure 90 percent of students attend class 90 percent of the time for at least two years in a row.
  • A welcoming atmosphere for students and families.
  • Training for school board members.
  • Community collaboration and partnerships.

For districts that are unaccredited or provisionally accredited, CSD recommends additional resources that would:

  • Encourage educators to work in the poorest areas.
  • Establish free full-day kindergarten and fully funded preschool for children who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
  • Pay for extended summer school programs and home visits.
  • Provide space for agencies such as Division of Family Services, Nurses for Newborns and other support and social-service groups.

To access additional help, unaccredited schools could ask accredited schools to establish partnerships and provide assistance in areas such as professional development, curriculum and lesson plans. Teachers and students from higher-achieving schools could partner with their counterparts in struggling classrooms.
To improve the accreditation process, CSD says schools could be recognized when they are improving, with designations such as “provision and progressing” or unaccredited and progressing.”

Students would be placed in successful schools in their own district before being allowed to transfer elsewhere, and if a district achieves the number of points needed for provisional accreditation, transfers from that district would stop.

In terms of school finance, the position paper recommends not only full funding of the foundation formula and additional resources for districts with high levels of poverty, but also a simple majority to pass bond issues; increased limits for a district’s bonding capacity; a regional tuition rate for transfers, adjusted at least every four years; and no redirection of money from public schools to private schools through vouchers or tuition tax credits.

CSD wants charter schools to be subject to the same accreditation and accountability standards as public school districts. And it said local control needs to be maintained.

“All local school districts should have the authority to make the final decisions about matters including open enrollment; employee compensation and working conditions; class sizes; curriculum and instructional materials; professional development; program and employee evaluations; and school calendar. It is essential that local school districts are empowered to determine the number of students they can enroll from outside their boundaries. This is the only way they can maintain locally determined class sizes.”

Coordinated efforts for change

Senti noted that the priorities in the CSD document are supported not only by St. Louis area superintendents but by their counterparts in Kansas City and southwest Missouri. He said a statewide group, the Missouri Association of School Administrators, also is using the blueprint as a starting point for its own plan, to be made public shortly.

MASA held a meeting in Jefferson City earlier this week to talk about legislative priorities, and judging from comments from lawmakers last week at a meeting with education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, the superintendent group has a lot of influence on school legislation.

Senti said that with more than 520 school districts in Missouri, superintendents’ influence can be felt strongly, particularly in rural areas. He noted schools’ influence earlier this fall in supporting Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would have cut taxes and reduced money available for education in the state.

“Most of the districts are small,” Senti said, “so they all have their legislators, and especially outstate, the legislator thinks the school superintendent is godlike and actually listens to what he has to say.”

He hopes that a joint effort from superintendents around Missouri will help get significant education legislation passed in Jefferson City when the new session of the General Assembly begins in January.

“The fact that urban, suburban and outstate people are together on this is significant,” Senti said.

One particular area where he hopes they will succeed is in fully funding the state’s foundation formula for schools. He said that not approving the extra money will cost the state far more in the long run if students end up transferring from schools in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Pointing to the financial impact of transfers from Normandy and Riverview Gardens this fall – about $35 million – Senti said:

“I think the legislature will have to fund it. It will cost some more money, but nowhere near what it will cost if they don’t do something. About 15,000 kids in the city said they would transfer, and about the same number in Kansas City. The transfer choice option for urban schools is 10 times more expensive.”

Superintendents aren’t the only school officials preparing a legislative agenda for January. The Missouri School Boards Association also has a list of priorities, some of which match those from CSD and elsewhere.

On transfers, “we think the receiving school districts need more flexibility in receiving students from unaccredited districts to prevent overcrowded classrooms and so they can plan staffing needs,” said MSBA spokesman Brent Ghan via email. “The receiving school districts also need to have assurance of prompt payment for the cost of educating the additional students.

“Having said that, we also think steps need to be taken to ensure the unaccredited school districts do not face the possibility of serious financial problems, including bankruptcy because of the transfers. We have to take steps to protect them and improve the education of the students who remain in the unaccredited districts.”

And after the veto of the tax-cut bill, HB253, Ghan said his group expects lawmakers to take another run at the issue, one that the school boards will again oppose.

“Legislators heard the voice of school board members this summer about the harmful impact of HB 253 on education funding,” he said, “and I think board members will be just as vocal again if the legislature considers tax cut legislation that would reduce state revenue and threaten funding for K-12 education. Real economic growth depends on quality schools and a well-educated workforce, not on state tax cuts.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has scheduled two meetings, Nov. 11 and Dec. 11, in Normandy “regarding efforts to return the district to accredited status and determine what community resources may be useful or necessary in supporting that effort. Public input into a long-range plan for the support of and possible intervention in unaccredited schools will be heard.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.