Friday, March 23, 2007

Our Failing Public Schools: When The State Steps In

St. Louis' public school system has gotten so bad that the State of Missouri is taking over:
JEFFERSON CITY — With one St. Louis student in custody and scores of other students and parents choking on tears of frustration, the State Board of Education on Thursday revoked the accreditation of the 169-year-old St. Louis Public Schools and voted to turn its operation over to a businessman with limited educational experience.

"I feel pain for them," state board President Peter Herschend of Branson said of the 150 St. Louis students and parents who crowded a state office building to protest the intervention. "But these young men and women have been denied a decent education by the system."

If the move is not blocked in court, the transitional school board headed by St. Louis County developer Rick Sullivan, chairman of McBride & Son Enterprises, will assume control of the city schools on June 15.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended Sullivan for the position after Gov. Matt Blunt formally nominated him.

With Blunt at his side at a news conference in St. Louis on Thursday, Sullivan called the concerns of angry students, parents and teachers his top priority.

"The key will be to listen," Sullivan said. "I am willing to talk to people who will be reasonable."

Sullivan, 54 of Frontenac, is the father of seven. He said he has served as a director on two university boards and has been active with Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America. Mayor Francis Slay and Lewis Reed, president-elect of the Board of Aldermen, will select the other two members of the transitional board.

The appointed board will take over a district teeming with outrage over a move that will strip the city's elected School Board of its power and establish an undisclosed scholastic agenda for the nearly 33,000 students attending schools in the state's largest district.

As the start of Thursday's meeting approached, the escalating tension was palpable.

During the meeting, about 25 students disrupted a presentation to the board with chants of "No takeover! No takeover!" Moments later, they left their seats and converged on board members huddled at the front of the auditorium.

The student at the front of the group bumped into the back of a Capitol Police officer with his shoulder. When the officer attempted to subdue the student, the boy ran out of the building, where he was subdued with pepper spray, handcuffed and taken into custody.

Capitol Police said the student is 16 and attends Roosevelt High School. He was taken to a Jefferson City juvenile facility and later released. His case will be heard in St. Louis.

St. Louis Superintendent Diana Bourisaw criticized police, and linked the scuffle to the state board and intervention.

"The altercation was just another example of the disregard for children that we've seen," she said.

Herschend, who watched the incident, saw it differently. He called the student's actions an "ill-advised move."

St. Louis students are on spring break this week. When they return next week to take state standardized tests, the drama surrounding their district will shift to the state Capitol, where Sullivan's nomination goes before the Senate Education Committee.

Under state law, Sullivan could receive a salary for his CEO duties, but Blunt's office said he will not be paid. Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said paying Sullivan, especially when the other two board members will not be paid, would send the wrong message.

"The mission of the transitional board is children," she said. "It should not be about money."

The selection of Sullivan did nothing to placate critics who say the intervention disenfranchises city voters and that the loss of accreditation could hamper St. Louis public school graduates when they apply for college.

School Board candidate David Lee Jackson criticized Blunt for reneging on a promise to appoint an educator to the transitional post. Jackson also took exception to having a county resident running the city schools. At the same time, Jackson — a consultant for minority-owned contractors who has worked with Sullivan professionally — praised the nominee.

"He's a tough businessman, and he's a no-nonsense kind of guy," Jackson said. "He'll run the district like a company."

A desire for fiscal responsibility in a district that turned a $52 million surplus into a $24.5 million deficit in five years was a key factor in the state's decision to remove the school system's accreditation, state officials said.

More important, they said, was the district's failure to meet state accreditation standards for everything from graduation rates to test scores in math and language arts in the upper grades.

"Education at the end of the day is how well are the kids doing compared to their peer groups and any other standards. And the standards met for kids in city of St. Louis is dismal. They have earned unaccreditation," Herschend said.

By postponing intervention until June, the state board opened the door for the city School Board — which is expected to seat a new majority after the April 3 election — to mount a legal challenge financed by the taxpayers.

"I think it's appropriate," said board Vice President William Purdy. "The district is under assault and attack and it is appropriate for any district under attack to defend itself."

The city board voted 4-3 earlier this year not to pursue a legal case to stop the intervention. But Purdy and two other board members opposed to the transitional district independently retained a lawyer to examine their legal options. That attorney, Johnny Richardson of Jefferson City, said he will wait for the state board's response to an appeal to reverse Thursday's action.

Purdy and board members Peter Downs and Donna Jones said they will make that appeal.

With the possibility of a businessman coming on board to run the district, state Education Commissioner D. Kent King said a decision on Bourisaw's future as its chief academic officer or superintendent is in the hands of the transitional board.
We'd be willing to bet that state-level EduCrats will not be able to do much better than the local EduCracy did.
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