JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
The Missouri Senate’s recent debate on how to handle troubled schools demonstrates the history of how difficult it has been for lawmakers to find lasting solutions to the problems and issues facing public schools.
Over decades, I’ve listened to countless hours of lawmakers debating the same issues over and over again.
They’ve repeatedly debated school choice, equity in education funding, failing schools, support for private schools, school curricula changes and teacher tenure. Yet I cannot remember a single time that Missouri’s General Assembly has made a major policy change that has lasted in any of those areas. Long-term Statehouse sources have told me they also cannot recall a single time.
You could make the argument that passage of a bill authorizing charter schools was a major step, but it’s a pretty limited venture that even some supporters acknowledge needs major adjustments. To be fair, they did address a major problem involving special education that has lasted. But that’s about it.
The frustration with talk not leading to action on failing school districts was expressed by Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, as she spoke to her colleagues before the final vote on this year’s education bill.
“We’ve been having this same discussion since I was in high school long over 20 years ago. We’ve had this discussion for a very, very, very long time,” Curls said.
Kiki Curls should know about that history. Her uncle, Phil Curls, had been a long-term senator as she was growing up. Even the few times the Legislature has passed broad education efforts, it has not lasted. And it usually has been triggered by court decisions or the threat of court action rather than by the Legislature’s initiative to make a major change.
It has been fear that Missouri’s entire school funding system would be struck down by the courts that prompted legislators repeatedly to pass new funding systems designed to provide more equity.
But every time a new funding formula was passed, it failed to achieve the equity lawmakers sought to reduce the gap between how much is spent to educate a student in a wealthy district compared with the state’s poorer districts.
Today, because of tax-collection shortfalls, Missouri is below the goal lawmakers themselves put into the law they passed to achieve equity.
This year, lawmakers have talked eloquently about solving the problems facing failed school districts.
But their action comes six years after the loss of accreditation for the St. Louis City School District. During those six years, an entire group of students entered high school and graduated from the troubled district.
Further, this year’s action actually was prompted by the courts.
Specifically, it is a state Supreme Court decision that children in an unaccredited school district have an absolute legal right to enroll in an accredited district.
That has led to complaints from accredited districts in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas that they lack the facilities and teaching staff to handle large numbers of transfer students.
So a major component of this year’s legislation has been to restrict the transfer right of students that legislators themselves had passed more than two decades ago.
Ironically, this current transfer issue before the legislature was part of one of those failed legislative efforts to provide equity in school funding.
I should note that this year’s bill does make some small steps for troubled districts in major education issues that have been debated for so many years, such as funding for private schools and imposing class-level advancement restrictions to prevent social promotion. It even has provisions for school intervention with parents of troubled students.
It will be interesting to see if this year’s Legislature actually can make a major change in one of those areas that works and that lasts.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps. He is the Statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.