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Opinion: A freshman rural lawmaker looks at the charter school debate

I am an attorney by trade, but an educator by choice.  The debate on expanding charter schools has itself been an education, featuring plenty of numbers, graphs, and an avalanche of contacts from constituents and non-constituents alike, many of whom are as opposed to charter schools as Churchill was opposed to Hitler—and vice versa.  

As any good first term freshman would do, I looked at this legislation and saw the over 30,000 city population clause and did the math—and initially concluded that I had no dog in this fight. The same thing can be said for every district north of I-70 that is not St. Joseph.   

But next, as any good first term freshman should do, I took a look at this from a statewide perspective—even though my district and corner of the state has been blessed with great schools and great teachers.  Our teachers wear three and four different hats, including driving buses, because they have to.  We do not have the staff to offer AP courses or chemistry or calculus in half of our rural districts because we do not have the money to do so and we are always playing catch up with the suburban districts.  We suffer from lack of course access at home because broadband has not caught up to more than 1 million of us, and my corner of the state has 8 of the 10 worst served counties in Missouri.  

It is truly humbling to talk with our teachers, many of whom go back to the schools where they learned and work miracles with their students on a daily basis because they care so deeply about them.  We have great outcomes in our districts because we have great teachers who are willing to sacrifice higher salaries because they want to give back to the communities that molded them.

However, the problem with the charter expansion scenario is that expansion of charter schools is not about my district, or my corner of the state, but it is about the entire State of Missouri.

The State of Missouri has thrown hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars into school districts that do not teach their students the basics of how to read, write or make change, let alone ‘solve for x’ or write code.  As a state, we are now focused like a laser beam on Workforce Development—but have a hard time admitting that no matter how many resources we bring to bear on that problem, no employer is going to hire someone who cannot read at grade level.  

Our prisons are full of thousands of individuals who were educated in failing schools.  We talk incessantly, and rightly so, about how many of our inmates suffer from substance abuse problems, but shy away from talking about the fact that the other major common denominator of our prison population is their appalling level of illiteracy.  

In order to obtain a bit more perspective to make the most intelligent decision regarding this thorny and emotional issue, I revisited an item that caught my eye last year:  a discussion of our State’s leadership about “The Hard Truths” confronting Missouri.  The #1 truth:  “There is natural tension between our rural, urban, and suburban communities, and between communities within each of those categories.”  The debate over charter expansion is a perfect illustration of that divide. The strength of feeling regarding this issue is almost palpable.

A second major problem is that “Our infrastructure is inadequate for today’s economy” and a third is that “our “GRADUATES” (emphasis mine) and workforce are not ready” to work in today’s economy.

At the risk of expanding the inquiry further into what we need to do as a state to ensure that we provide quality instruction to all of our students wherever they reside in Missouri, we also need to redefine “infrastructure” to include not just capital spending projects, but also include in that definition “human capital”—namely, our students of today who will become our leaders in business, industry and the professions tomorrow.  

With coming advances in artificial intelligence, many of the jobs we know today will be modified or no longer exist by the time today’s kindergarten student is ready to graduate from high school.  We need to get ahead of those developments so we can ride that wave, instead of being crushed by it.  Long story short, Missouri’s education system needs an Extreme Makeover.

The debate over expanding charter schools has opened my eyes to the enormity of the problem we face today in our educational system. And that problem begins with a number.  

The number comes from information DESE shared with us in Budget this year—a full 60% of its full-time employees are chasing after 18.5% of the total budget.  You read that right—60% of DESE is dealing with less than 20% of our funding. 

I hear a lot of complaints about DESE—I hear them from superintendents, I hear them from principals, I hear them from teachers and I hear them from staff. I heard it from a teacher whose class scored 20% on a standardized test one year and 40% the next.  Instead of being written up for another year of failing grades, the class was issued a certificate of merit for doubling their scores—even though the class collectively scored an “F.” That only makes sense on “Barney” re-runs.

DESE makes it easy to serve as scapegoats.  They use a lot of acronyms and throw around a lot of data points and are not very easy to understand, which is a major problem when your job is to educate. They mandate tedious reports that few of us read and even fewer of us actually understand.  After all of the sound and fury emanating from this paperwork tsunami, we are still left with students who cannot read at grade level in schools that continue to fail regardless of how many hoops they jump through and how many reports they file.

But let’s move the lens farther out to the even bigger picture—who saddles DESE with all of these paperwork requirements?  The answer is in two parts—we do in the General Assembly and of equal importance, so does the Federal Department of Education.

The best quote I have heard yet about the DOE is that they are “10% of our funding and 90% of our headaches.” For a state that prides itself on local control, we do a remarkably bad job of punching back against Federal mandates.  I asked a superintendent recently what elementary and secondary education would look like if the Federal Department of Education had never existed and the reply was, “It would look a lot better.”

What is the net result of more than 40 years of Federal interference in our educational system?  Lower test scores in every subject, dumbed down SAT and ACT tests, and a national educational system that was once the envy of the world now bordering on 3rd world country status in math and sciences while the pace of change never slows down, but only increases.  This is at once absurd and unacceptable—and most unfortunately, above our pay grades.

As legislators, what have we added to this long-running drama?  For starters, we have oscillated between standardized tests that we insist on changing every other year and imposed unfunded mandates such as requiring every district to become experts at suicide prevention without the companion funding to train those who are mandated with performing the duties or hiring professionals who are already trained in suicide prevention for our buildings.  We mandate how many hours a year a student should be in class at a time when the students of today have half as much homework as students did a generation ago.  We now expect them to learn as much or more with fewer contact hours.  As legislators, we have also helped to fail our students.

There is another group in Missouri that is failing our students—parents.  Far too many parents have gone from being partners in education to merciless critics of teachers who cannot deliver a finished product to their door because teachers do not have 24 hours a day to reinforce the lessons they teach in school.  Far too many parents have different priorities from making sure that their children are doing their homework, or even attending class.  The unfortunate flip side of that equation is that far too many Missouri parents are not equipped themselves to help with the homework because they also went through schools that failed them.

We are now in the process of creating after-school programs to bridge that gap during the day and expanding summer school programs to help students retain what they learn from one year to the next.  Summer school for us a generation ago meant summer playground, not remediation on the fundamentals that we had drilled into our heads every day of the week before the introduction of block schedules and ‘connected math’ that is disconnected from reality.

Boiled down to its basic elements, education is a process between three parties:  the students, the teachers, and the parents.  The bureaucratic superstructure we have imposed year in, year out at the state and Federal levels only gets in the way of the basic goal of any educational system:  improved student learning.  In our heart of hearts, we all want is best for our kids.  The problem is that we do not have a consensus about how to accomplish that—and that fact alone is a failure.  Too much energy has been expended fighting from opposite corners instead of seeking a compromise that will at least begin to solve these decades-old problems.

As a result of the information, I have been provided within ample portions to help me make the decision to vote whether or not to expand charter schools, I have been able to reach several conclusions.  

  1. Students and parents in failing school districts feel the same way about obtaining a quality education as those of us in Rural areas feel about not having access to broadband internet:  we are frustrated beyond words that we are missing out on the future. There is no worse feeling than being left behind when the rest of the state is moving ahead toward a brighter future while we are stuck in the past. 
  1. There is no silver bullet that will solve our educational problems today, tomorrow or next year.  It took us decades to devolve into this mess, and it will take us many years to climb out of the holes that we have dug as a state.
  1. Every student in Missouri deserves the opportunity to get ahead and to live the American Dream.  That opportunity starts with education–period. 

The one thing that we can all agree upon is that the status quo is an abject failure.  The next thing we should agree upon is that failure is no longer a viable option.

My friends in economic development speak often about their “tool kits.”  We are considering legislation this session that will provide a closing fund to aid economic developers to ‘seal the deal’ with employers who want to move jobs into our state.  

I look at expanding charter schools as another tool in our tool kit as a State to expand options for our students to climb the ladder of success and become the workers and managers who employers from other states cannot wait to hire because they have received excellent educations from their schools. If charter schools can help us to change the “Hard Truths” that are holding us back as a state into major accomplishments, then they are worth the risk.

Based on these reasons, this Rural representative is voting in favor of expanding charter schools.