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Roger Kurtz (MASA) Op-Ed: A New Path to Excellence

“All students matter. All schools matter. All communities matter.” This was the basic belief adopted by school leaders who recently convened to develop a plan to address the school transfer issue. Their solution is to focus on the student, build a school that can deliver results and engage the community to make the change. The leaders are proposing bold changes to make this happen by setting time limits, strong interventions and a drastic departure from the status quo. In addition to the Missouri Association of School Administrators, the policy framework proposal has the support of the Cooperating School Districts of St. Louis, the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City and the Southwest Center.

The school leaders are suggesting that the focus be on school buildings rather than school districts. When a school building is identified as under-performing or academically stressed, business as usual must change. Interventions must be implemented sooner and with fidelity. Program designs must be research- or evidence-based. If improvement is not made, the school building is removed from the district and assigned to a state achievement district that would work directly with the school, principal, teachers and community to bring about the improvements that will lead to sustained academic success.

The Normandy School District has been provisionally accredited since 1996. Under the school leaders plan, interventions would have started 17 years ago. It takes at least three years of sustained improvement for the State Board of Education to change a district’s classification. In a departure from current practice, the school leaders are proposing that if a school district does not show growth within five years of being provisionally accredited, a higher level of intervention is employed. This higher level of intervention could include the possible removal of the school board, superintendent, principal, teachers and contracts. If improvement still doesn’t happen, the district is lapsed and students are assigned to another district as defined by current state statute. There is no need at this point to bankrupt the district and ask taxpayers to pay for an expensive transportation plan.

The State Board of Education may accomplish much of the solution proposed by the school leaders through the rule-making process. Legislative attempts have failed to fix the problem largely because public education opponents have attempted to hijack the issue to push their private school voucher agendas. The rule-making process allows for significant public input without intervention by high-paid lobbyists in the halls of the Capitol.

It is interesting that critics of the plan have only proposed continuing the current transfer program, vouchers and more charter schools as an alternative. The Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM), which is financed by Rex Sinquefield, calls itself a “solutions-oriented organization”. However, the group’s only proposal is to maintain the status quo in order to provide political fodder for their privatization agenda. The Missouri Charter Public Schools Association has joined CEAM in their opposition to the plan. For these organizations, it is all about the money. Seventy-five percent of the students do not choose to transfer. Their plan does nothing at all for those students. In fact, it drains resources from the district and makes the schools worse and destroys the community.

Opponents are worried that the proposed achievement district will not create more charter schools. Current charter schools as a group are doing no better than their public school counterparts and in some cases worse. We believe that better models of excellence exist in neighboring districts. Accredited and struggling school districts should work together and be mutually supportive. These supports could include administrators from accredited schools partnering with administrators from unaccredited districts, providing high quality teachers for at least one year as coaches in a struggling school, and launching an Adopt-A-School or Sister School programs that promote partnerships between schools.

The school leaders believe that someone within the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) needs to provide leadership and be held accountable for providing the assistance to struggling districts. Since the Normandy School District has received the unaccredited rating, the primary intervention strategy put forth by DESE has been to transfer 25% of the students until the district is bankrupt and then assign the students to another district where the process may likely repeat itself as it did when Wellston students were sent to Normandy. We must stop this insanity.

Roger Kurtz
Executive Director
Missouri Association of School Administrators