JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — During the last week of session, the General Assembly agreed on compromise legislation dealing with education standards in response to the adoption of the sometimes controversial “common core.”
The bill had a long journey to Gov. Nixon’s desk, starting with rising concerns from parents demanding a legislative response.
The biggest concerns Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-St. Charles, had with common core lied in state sovereignty, privacy, and education quality, which he sought to specifically address in his legislation.
Bahr sponsored HB1490, which originally was less than a page. The largely discussed compromise for standards sits on the Governor’s desk at only 14 pages and seeks to establish various working committees across the state to mold new standards for math and language arts. The bill does not forbid those working groups from adopting common core, but rather relies on the assumption that Missourians will ultimately choose a different route.
“The bill was originally written harsh – no common core, none,” Bahr said. “The reason for that was to force debate because the establishment – DESE – didn’t want to debate, didn’t want to negotiate. ‘It simply is – so do it.’ I offered an alternative and I was viewed as harsh and intransigent. That was never my intent. I had very specific harms and I had a bill that addressed those harms.”
Bahr’s legislative assistant, Nina Dean, was integral to the effort behind the legislation. Dean has a Master’s in Elementary School Education and formerly taught in the classroom, which made her uniquely suited to handle the anti-common core grassroots efforts that emerged in light of the bill.
“They are mixing up curriculum with standards,” Dean said. “The problem is that the standards drive the tests and the tests drive the curriculum. Some of the schools brought this upon themselves because they were so secretive – they wouldn’t allow students to bring home work they had done in school, thus making the parents feel like there was stuff going on in the classrooms that they don’t know about. When I look at it, I look at it from a teacher’s point of view.”
Dean found herself talking to parents across the state about the issue, providing them with a variety of resources for issue education. She made a deliberate effort to be fair, pointing parents to links of source documents and telling them to come to their own conclusion.
“More often than not, people would come back and say, ‘I don’t like this, tell me what I need to do,’” Dean said. “It grew into this coalition of parents who wanted to do something. “
The parents started to mobilize and reached out to Bahr’s office again for a solution.
“Jill Carter is one of the mothers. I will never forget the phone call that she made wanting me to explain common core,” Dean said. “I talked to her and she said, ‘I don’t like it, what do I need to do?’”
“I met them after I hearing and researching some concerns about Common Core,” Jill Carter said. “I was just trying to understand the issue myself and wanted to talk to someone who I felt that there were enough valid concerns they would propose legislation against it. I called Representative Bahr’s office and talked to Nina about why they were concerned.”
“She was never interested in politics and never knew anything about it. She decided that she wasn’t going to let this happen to her children,” Dean said.
“My concern with Common Core is not just in the standards, but the other assurances that the Governor committed us to when he got the State Fiscal Stabilization Funds,” Carter said. “The teacher evaluation piece is one major concern. It takes more control away from local school boards and gives it to people who have very little investment in the community itself.”
Carter went on to convince her representative to fight common core because of her concern. The school district Carter lived in was the first to have a school board sign a resolution against the federal standards.
“When you mix a lack of trust in DESE and the grassroots support, all of the sudden, you have people willing to listen and think, ‘Ok, this might be bad, but what’s your solution?’ Once we changed the language to ‘here is a solution’, people saw that as refreshing. They saw that as a good compromise.”
It was refreshing for Bahr and Dean for legislative colleagues to come around to see their view as the bill evolved, especially after the parent’s grassroots efforts kept contacting their elected officials.
“I wanted to point the moms in the right direction and also calm them down,” Dean said. “There comes a point when they make their reps angry and I had to say, ‘Stop calling now’ or ‘You’re doing yourself more harm than good.’”
Dean encouraged the parents to come to the Capitol for the hearings for the bill, which brought hundreds of parents and children to the Capitol to lobby for the bill. One hearing was so full that by the time DESE Director Nicastro arrived, there was no place for her to sit.
Dean fondly remembers one of the senators saying to DESE in one of the final hearings, “You keep telling me that the education is horrible here, but you guys are the ones that have done it all these years. So, it’s your fault and you’re asking me to fix it anyway that we can. You made this mess.”
“I appreciate all their work in behalf of our state and our children,” Jill Carter said.
HB1490 changed from its original version, as Bahr intended. The bill went through over 50 legislative actions to get to the legislative, political, and issue-based compromise that it is today. Bahr and Dean joked that they called the bill the Groundhog Day bill.
“In the end, I think I’ve won because I’ve achieved my goals,” Bahr said.
“We need to thank all of those moms,” Dean laughed.
The coalitions are continuing even after session, most recently holding a meeting in Sedalia and raising the concern again at Pachyderm meetings in central Missouri.
Assuming the legislation is not vetoed, the bill will allow the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to create committees comprised of a range of individuals invested in education to evaluate standards through meetings and eventually create official Missouri Learning Standards.
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.