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Lots of talk, little action by Missouri lawmakers on education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 17, 2011 - On the first business day after a legislative session that saw a lot of talk but a lot less action on bills concerning Missouri schools, the head of the House education committee found himself in a Washington, Mo., classroom.

After state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, spent Monday working as a substitute teacher in an industrial technology class -- "not exactly my forte," he said -- he took time to talk about the bills that passed, the ones that stalled and the outlook for action next year.

On two of the issues with the highest profile -- expanding charter schools beyond St. Louis and Kansas City to throughout the state and coming up with a fix for the "Turner case," which provides options for students living in unaccredited school districts -- Dieckhaus said good ideas were proposed, but various groups couldn't put aside their differences to come up with an acceptable compromise.

But in Jefferson City, issues often move forward by inches until they cross the finish line, and on charter schools, Dieckhaus wasn't ready to give this session's outcome a flunking grade.

"To focus on the bill's failure is the wrong way to look at it," he said. "We hadn't passed a charter bill out of the Missouri House since charters were authorized in the '90s. It really shows we're making progress on the issue, and it's something we could run all the way through the process next year."

State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, Dieckhaus' counterpart in the Senate, noted that two education bills were sent to Gov. Jay Nixon for his signature.

One, SB54, deemed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, provides greater protection for children who allege sexual abuse by a teacher or other school employee. The other, SB81, bolsters fine arts education.

And he shares the optimistic view that issues that did not make it out of the General Assembly this time around may win final passage in the future.

"We found out some things that would work," Pearce said, "and we found out some things that would not work. When it comes to education, people are not bashful. We hear from a lot of folks back home. I have to look at policies that affect everybody, and it's not an easy task at times."

Charter Schools

From the start of Missouri's venture into charter schools -- publicly funded schools that operate independently of any district and are not subject to a district's policies and procedures — they have been allowed only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Going into the legislative session, there was a lot of talk about expanding them statewide.

Coupled with the talk of expansion was a call for more accountability for charters. Some have gone under because of poor financial management, and few have shown markedly better student achievement. The charter bill that got the most attention was HB473, sponsored by Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis. It passed in the House in late April, 86-70, but got caught in the crush of legislation at the end of the session and was never brought up for a vote in the Senate.

Pearce said the bill appealed to a lot of people, despite its failure to win final approval.

"There were some things we could all agree on," he said. "One, there needs to be more accountability with our charter schools. Some have done a fantastic job, others have not been as good. This was a positive step. There probably is some need for some expansion.

"For the most part, in outstate Missouri, this was really a non-issue because they have not had charters, and there's not really a compelling need for them. Those who are really involved in the educational community have seen some of the problems they have had and say, 'We really don't need that.'"

Adds Dieckhaus:

"The bill got over to the Senate side late, but ultimately we had a couple of differing viewpoints as to what needed to be included. We just ran out of time. But I think a lot of legislators who voted 'no' this time around are willing to take another look at the issue. I think there's a fear of the unknown -- not necessarily a fear of charter schools but a question of how they would affect individual districts."

Amber Simpson, head of the board of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, considers the debate "an ongoing exercise. We just need to keep on doing what we've been doing and continue to build relationships with stakeholders in the community."

She, too, cited competition from other bills, like local control of the St. Louis police force, as one reason the charter bill stalled, even though there was more legislative support than backers have seen in the past.

"It's really working from an educational perspective," Simpson said, "that we are public schools and we exist because the public is asking for more options."

Joe Knodell of the Missouri Education Reform Council said he thought some opposition came from teachers unions and others who thought an expansion of charters would take some of their power away. He also sees an element of "the fear of the unknown" in parts of the state, even in regions where charters are unlikely to take root.

"We support charter school expansion statewide," he said. "But you had people watering it down from what we would have liked to see. We would like to see local districts allowed to form their own charter schools or make their own schools into charter-like schools."

Knodell said he also saw the expansion of charters as part of the fix for another knotty education problem in Missouri -- the Turner case.

Unaccredited Districts, Legal Remedies

Widespread talk of the Turner case began last summer, when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that students who live in a district whose schools are unaccredited, like St. Louis or Riverview Gardens, have the legal right to transfer to accredited schools in the same or an adjacent county. The sending district must pay the tuition, the court said, and the receiving district must accept the students.

But the high court also sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where it began with a suit filed by families whose students had transferred to the Clayton school district. There, a judge put off new action until May 31, apparently expecting the legislature to come up with a fix.

Despite a lot of talk about the issue and legislation that was filed as HB763, which would have given receiving districts more discretion on what students would have to be accepted, the bill did not pass.

Its sponsor, state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, said he wanted to make sure that students who live in failing school districts have more options, but he also wanted to give more leeway to the receiving districts. Coming up with an acceptable compromise proved impossible, he said.

Now, Stream added, "we don't know what's going to happen. There are different opinions. Some think the court will say that since the legislature didn't do it, we're going to crack down and say to students in the city that they're allowed to go to any county district and the city school district will have to pay for it. That will really hurt county districts.

"Others think the court wasn't as clear on that as they were on other parts of its ruling, and they think the lower court isn't as inclined to be that hard on county districts, which aren't at fault. They may come up with their own solution."

Knodell's group pushed for a solution that let students in unaccredited districts transfer to county districts. He said the bill did not fail from a lack of trying.

"I'll give everybody an 'A' for effort," he said. "We met with several organizations, but we never could come to an agreement about what needs to be done. So it looks like it's back in the court's court."

The state school board, which meets in Jefferson City this week, has no power to act on its own, but Turner is expected to be a topic of discussion. Meanwhile, only two students remain in the Clayton schools from families who were the original plaintiffs. They will remain in the district this fall, said Clayton spokesman Chris Tennill.

"We have a pretty good track record in the three years that this has been going on," he said, "so that we can work things out that the kids' education is not impacted by the disagreement that the grownups are having."

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.