JEFFERSON CITY – Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, and Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, are passionate in their belief that Missouri children are entitled to a quality education, and they are working to make sure that happens.
Cunningham and Dieckhaus both serve on the Joint Committee on Education which has been gathering recommendations for education reform. They are in the process of filing bills addressing problems and solutions.
Dieckhaus, who chairs the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, was a high school social studies teacher and certified as a high school principal before becoming a state representative.
Cunningham’s background is in finance and administration, and she is seeking to incorporate free market solutions into the proposed legislation.
She outlined some of the goals for reform, starting with the need to define the specific rights which families have. She cited a recent decision of the Missouri Supreme Court, Turner v. Clayton (MO) School District, as a basis for what will be proposed.
“If you reside in an unaccredited district, you have the right to choose any public school system you want to attend,” she said. The accredited school district must accept the student and the unaccredited district must pay for transportation and tuition.
“How does a school district, if chosen, accommodate the students, depending on how many requests they get?” she asked. “We’re not going to deal with rights. We are going to deal with mechanics of how we can make this happen logistically.”
There are several options being considered.
1) Virtual public schools, that is, Internet classes, can be opened within the boundaries of the failing districts.
2) The charter school concept can be expanded. Currently, only St. Louis and Kansas City have the authority to operate charter schools. There are 24 school districts in the state that are struggling and could potentially fall into the category of unaccredited schools. This includes St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, which are already unaccredited.
3) Another option would be to allow the receiving district the authority to privately contract services in order to accommodate these students.
Also of concern to the committee is the quality of education. Some discussions have involved tenure and performance pay.
“It is so difficult to non-renew a teacher who has tenure, even though they are under-performing and children are disadvantaged,” said Cunningham. She would like to see exemplary teachers paid higher salaries “and treated like professionals.”
“If the students pass the MAP test and are working very hard, we would like to see extra pay for that.” She would also like to see higher pay for specialties that are in short supply – like math and science teachers.
Both Cunningham and Dieckhaus want to see an end to the practice of social promotion – moving students ahead when they haven’t mastered the skills of their grade level.
As their legislation is taking shape, the two lawmakers are running into resistance in some quarters. However, Dieckhoff said they are not discouraged.
“For every email I get from upset teachers, I get one from someone who is paying attention and saying it’s the right thing to do and to press on.”
He said that there are several components and he expects some things will take on more importance and some will diminish as efforts are made to formulate improvement. There is one area, though, in which he expects continued strong agreement.
“We both feel that parents should be the ultimate authority in how their children are educated,” he said.
BARBARA SHOUN / contributing writer