Education groups offer solution to transfers controversy

They often don’t agree on education policies, but groups representing school board members, administrators, teachers and parents presented a united front Monday on a plan to deal with failing school districts and the state law allowing students to transfer out of those troubled districts.

“Our plan is relatively simple — school boards in unaccredited districts should be allowed to enter into a contract with the State Board of Education, to commit to necessary improvements,” Missouri School Boards Association Director Carter Ward told a Monday morning news conference.

“The issue of unaccredited school districts and student transfers resulting from current state law is difficult and complex.”

Missouri classifies public school districts at three levels: accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited.

If a district is unaccredited for more than two years, the state Board of Education can decide to take over that district or disband it and send its students to neighboring districts.

And, under terms of a 1993 state law recently upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court, students in unaccredited districts can demand to be transferred to a neighboring district, with the student’s former district paying the costs.

Under the MSBA plan discussed just an hour before a state board workshop on the issue, Ward said the state board would agree to a contract with a troubled local district and reclassify that district back to “provisionally accredited for the duration of the contract,” which would keep the state transfer law’s provisions from kicking in.

“At minimum, the contract shall include a requirement for intensive professional development for teachers, administrators and school board members,” Ward said. “In addition, the contract shall include provisions committing the community to certain provisions, in order to maintain the provisional accreditation.”

Ward said their proposal would keep the state’s “local control” policy while letting the district officials to develop an improvement plan specific to their needs — and holding them accountable.

Ward said the contract idea is guided by four principles that he called “fundamental principles of democracy” — that Missouri public school districts must be:

• Governed by a locally elected, non-partisan board.

• Held to a high standard of performance.

• Student-centered, with every student entitled to a high quality public education in his or her home community.

• Community owned, with the public involved in making decisions for improvements.

Supporters said the state Board of Education could adopt the plan under existing laws, and wouldn’t need any legislative action.

A number of bills have been proposed in the House and Senate to deal with the issues.

Former Jefferson City School Board member Roger Kurtz, now director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, noted several education groups have been talking about solutions since last fall.

“Our basic premise was that every child matters, every school matters and every community matters,” Kurtz said.

He said the MSBA proposal for contracts between troubled local boards and the state board “will save Missouri taxpayers millions of dollars, provide a quality education for all students and preserve community schools and strengthen local communities.”

Charles Smith, Missouri National Education Association president and an English teacher in the Center School District south of Kansas City, told Monday’s news conference the plan was based on the groups’ experience and wisdom in various areas of education.

“Let us teach. Let us do what we know works,” he said. “Teachers know that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work with our students.

“And it will not work to adopt a single state model for all struggling schools.”

Andrea Flinders, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel, said the state’s ultimate solutions should be based on the experiences of those who work in education every day, “so that the best ideas are considered when policies are developed and implemented. The hard part is getting people to resist the urge to gravitate to the shiny-but-flawed object of so-called ‘reform.’”

The contract idea, she said, would allow solutions based on each district’s unique needs and targeted supports.

Ward said the proposal isn’t meant to go back in history “and rectify all the problems that occurred. From this day forward, however, we’re looking at a plan that increases the stakes for the local districts in achieving an accredited school districts.”

He said the contract plan also would allow local districts to focus on individual buildings that are failing, rather than having an entire district listed as failing because some of its buildings are in trouble.

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