Education on the Agenda for Missouri Legislative Session
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - How teachers are evaluated, held accountable and earn job-protecting tenure could be on the docket when a supermajority of Republicans takes control next month of the Missouri Legislature.
House Speaker Tim Jones said increased education funding alone has not been enough to boost performance and that he wants to enact change. He said Missouri's best teachers should be rewarded, good teachers should be given an incentive to improve and poor performers should be held accountable and possibly encouraged to move on.
"The public education system is another vestige of an antiquated bureaucracy and an antiquated establishment mentality, and it's not keeping up with the times," said Jones, R-Eureka.
Missouri lawmakers return Jan. 9 to the state Capitol for a session that runs through mid-May. Republicans expanded their majority in the state House, and a unified GOP caucus now can override a gubernatorial veto without Democratic support. Republican leaders listed education among their priorities.
One example Missouri could follow on education issues, Jones said, comes from New Jersey, where the Republican governor signed a bill passed by the Democratically-controlled Legislature. It includes an evaluation process and makes it harder for teachers to earn tenure and easier for them to lose it.
Missouri teachers currently can receive tenure after teaching in a district for five years. With tenure, they can be dismissed for immoral conduct; incompetency; inefficiency or insubordination; willful or persistent violation of the state's school laws or regulations; excessive absences; or conviction of certain felonies. Teachers also can be removed if they have a physical or mental condition that makes them unfit to instruct children. School districts seeking to remove a tenured teacher must provide written charges specifying the grounds for dismissal and offer a hearing.
Teacher organizations have resisted changes to Missouri's tenure law. They contend the protections allow teachers to advocate for their students without fear of losing their jobs.
Another education issue has been evaluations for teachers and administrators. The Missouri State Board of Education this past year approved a pilot project, and the state's waiver for the federal No Child Left Behind law will require districts have an evaluation process in place within several years.
Education advocacy group StudentsFirst said it would like state legislation requiring meaningful evaluations of teachers and administrators in all school districts that prioritizes student learning and is used for career advancement decisions. Lea Crusey, the organization's Missouri director, said the evaluations should account for student achievement and growth.
"We can't afford to wait," Crusey said.
Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association, said the State Board of Education has prompted action on evaluations.
"The movement by the State Board of Education makes the issue front-and-center for every school district, but it leaves them with that kind of flexibility that they're going to need and also the expectation that they're going to work things out locally so that everybody in the district buys into it," Fajen said.
Fajen said the state needs to adequately fund the formula used to distribute aid to school districts, which has been underfunded in recent years. Others also pointed to financial issues. The Missouri School Boards' Association and the Missouri State Teachers Association urged changes to state tax credits in hopes of freeing money for education. School boards also are seeking an increase in districts' bonding capacity, and teacher organizations have suggested extending expiring teacher retirement provisions that supporters say would help the retirement systems financially.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon urged discussion about lengthening the school year, noting that Missouri's calendar is among the shortest in the country.
During the last legislative session, Missouri lawmakers debated a number of education issues, including proposals to bar seniority from consideration in teacher layoffs, overhaul the state's school funding formula and allow quicker intervention in failing districts. A bill expanding charter schools passed, and lawmakers gave final approval to another measure vetoed by Nixon that was intended to shorten some students' lengthy bus rides by allowing them to attend classes in a closer school in another district.
Sen. David Pearce, who has been the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, plans to bring back legislation allowing for quicker state involvement in struggling districts. The proposal would remove the current two-year waiting period after state education officials revoke accreditation. Instead, the State Board of Education could establish conditions allowing the local school board to remain in place or determine when to impose an alternative governing structure.
Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he also wants to hear an update on the educator evaluation project.
Incoming Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat from St. Louis, said Missouri should consider enacting a "parent trigger" law that would allow the parents of children who attend a struggling school to force changes. Nasheed wrote in a column published by The St. Louis American that giving parents more power could increase pressure on districts and hold them accountable.
Missouri School Boards' Association spokesman Brent Ghan said a "parent trigger" law is unproven.
"It sets up an adversarial relationship between parents and the board and administration," Ghan said. "In struggling districts, we need to come together and work together."