Bill allows quicker intervention in failing schools

State education officials could set a timeline for intervening in failing Missouri school districts instead of waiting for a two-year grace period under legislation considered Wednesday by a House education committee.

The push to allow quicker state involvement in districts comes shortly after Kansas City schools lost state accreditation. One area that could be particularly affected is Kansas City, which currently has through June 2014 to improve before facing a state takeover. Two other Missouri school districts also are unaccredited — St. Louis Public Schools and the Riverview Gardens School District in St. Louis County — but each lost accreditation in 2007.

Waiting a couple years before allowing direct state intervention is too long for some state lawmakers. Sponsoring Rep. Mike Lair, who had been a teacher, said students entering high school in Kansas City would be juniors before state officials could act and might graduate before meaningful changes take root.

“If you find a man lying in the street, you don’t say I’ll be back in six hours to help you,” said Lair, R-Chillicothe.

Legislation presented to the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee would allow the State Board of Education to set a schedule for state involvement and approve an alternative system for governing unaccredited school districts. State officials could set a way for existing local school boards to continue operating their districts.

Alternatives developed by state officials would need to include the rationale for that choice and a system for accepting public comment. Expectations would need to be set for boosting academic performance, including a goal for when the schools would regain state accreditation. The state Board of Education would need to review and certify the alternative oversight structure every three years for districts that have not yet regained accreditation. The Legislature and governor would receive annual reports about districts’ progress.

Current law allows state education officials to appoint a special administrative board to govern unaccredited districts, merge them with a nearby district or split unaccredited districts into several new school systems. Those options remain under the legislation.

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, who previously has urged the Legislature to consider eliminating the two-year wait, supported the legislation Wednesday. She said current law does not provide flexibility to deal with the specific needs of individual districts and that the two-year waiting period is wrong.

“For us to sit back and allow a system that has proven to be dysfunctional for literally decades to wait for two more years before we are able to provide more direct support and intervention is in fact unconscionable,” Nicastro said.

Several school superintendents, a teachers union and the Missouri School Boards’ Association also backed the legislation. No one publicly opposed the measure during the House hearing.

The legislation does not delve into specifics for unaccredited school districts should be governed. Different proposals have been suggested this year for how to handle Kansas City’s schools, including an idea from Kansas City Mayor Sly James that would permit mayoral control.

Rep. Jason Holsman, whose legislative district includes three school districts that could receive students transferring from Kansas City, said delaying state action is not productive. He said there seems to be agreement quick action is needed but consensus has not yet been reached about what to do.

“The quickest path to regain student achievement is always preferable,” said Holsman, D-Kansas City. “If removing this two-year requirement will spur action either legislatively of from (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), then someone better have a pretty darn good reason as to why we should wait.”

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