• Education commissioner Nicastro talks about Missouri’s crisis in public education

    Posted: Friday, April 18, 2014 10:35 am | Updated: 10:44 am, Fri Apr 18, 2014.

    By Chris King Of The St. Louis American

    This morning, Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro has on her desk 102 pages of the House committee substitute for the Senate committee substitute for a Senate bill that could make – or break – public education in Missouri.

    She had not yet read the bill when she spoke to The American to update the community on pressing issues in urban education, though she knows the legislation is sure to go through more changes before it lands – if it does land – on the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon, who may – or may not – be willing to sign it into law.

    At this precarious and uncertain moment, Nicastro spoke to us about St. Louis Public Schools being reauthorized as a transitional district, the school transfer crisis, tuition vouchers for faith-based schools, and whether public education in Missouri is headed for a “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” doomsday scenario.

    The St. Louis American: The state school board just authorized St. Louis Public Schools to continue for two more years as a transitional district and it was barely treated as news in St. Louis.

    Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro: If people had perceived it as a bad thing, it would have been. I know the elected board would like the district to go back under their authority. I have had, and we continue to have, conversations with the elected board. The fact that they have stayed together and remained engaged is commendable.

    Having said that, most of us are of the mind that the Special Administrative Board has established good stability in the district. While we are all disappointed with the pace of academic performance improvement, generally people are satisfied with fiscal management and oversight of the district.

    Kelvin Adams would be the first to tell you they still have a long way to go, and we agree with that. But it is our opinion, and the state board concurred, that having stability there is good.

    The American: Tell us about the status of the transfer student bill.

    Chris Nicastro: I have on my desk 102 pages of the House committee substitute for the Senate committee substitute for Senate Bill 493 et. al. – the big bill that came out of the Senate. It has all kinds of things in there: transfer students, other school issues, charter school stuff. I just got the House committee substitute and have not had a chance to review it.

    But the House worked to craft this substitute bill, and it’s our understanding that it’s going to be a priority for the House this coming week. If it’s different than the Senate version, and I expect it is, this would have to go back to the Senate.

    It’s getting close to the end of the session, and the department has been clear from the beginning that it’s so critical to have a tuition calculation fix, in order to have specific monies available in the community left to support schools in that community. Aside from that, there may be a lot of stuff in there.

    The American: We have written that this could lead to a domino effect of one bankrupt public school district falling after another. Do you feel in the pit of your stomach that we would be facing a kind of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” for public education in Missouri?

    Chris Nicastro: Certainly, I would have fears if we keep attaching one district to another. If Normandy goes bankrupt and you assign all those children to a neighboring district, at some point you reach the end of that game.

    There may be some people who think that’s exactly what should happen. But if you look at the numbers of children, Normandy has 4,000 students. What happens to neighboring school districts if you assign these 4,000 kids to their population? What does their performance look like? What is the impact of that?

    So we can’t keep attaching one district to another. Even if it worked, it’s not the right thing to do. It’s really important to have schools in a community. You can’t just close all the school buildings and ship the kids out and hope to have any viable community left for them to go home to at night. The relationship between school and home is important. Sadly, a lot kids bring baggage when they come to school, but the message can’t be that there no longer will be schools in their community. I don’t think anyone is prepared to deliver that message.

    The American: In your department’s proposal of an alternative district for unaccredited districts, can you save these schools?

    Chris Nicastro: Only if we maintain taxing authority in that community. You have to have enough money to operate something. Those are the questions that need wrestling with, those are the questions the Transition Task Force is wrestling with. Under what structure do you maintain the schools that are there? – that’s the question we are wrestling with.

    And we don’t have much time. The session is over in four weeks, and our board meeting is the Monday and Tuesday after the session. We can’t do anything definite until Legislature is done, because we can’t come out there with a plan only to have it undone by what they decide to do.

    We need a transfer tuition fix, but it’s clear we are not going to get a tuition fix by itself. The key is what else comes with that, and whether they can move that through the House and Senate, as well as have the governor sign it. There is talk of vouchers, and it is clear what his position is on that.

    The American: By vouchers, do you mean tax relief for parents who send their student to private school, even if it’s a faith-based school?

    Chris Nicastro: I’m anxious to read the bill and see what’s in there on that. Most legislators realize there is a problem with the Blaine Amendment if you start sending public money to faith-based schools. Some only want vouchers for non-sectarian schools, and that appeases some people. We may be in a position where we have to take the worst among a bunch of bad solutions in order to get things done.

    The American: Many parents in host districts are complaining that their students are in larger classrooms, because of the transfer students. What do you say to them?

    I don’t hear directly from them. They are focused on their local school districts. There is no reason for that situation. Those districts are getting more than sufficient money to afford to hire additional teachers. If parents are seeing a negative impact, that’s an issue with the districts that could be addressed – and I have said that to superintendents. We are working to get the tuition for transfer students reduced, not because we don’t think the host districts deserve to be compensated, but because we think they are being compensated more than they should be.

    I am working here in the middle territory, between those who are typically called “school reformers,” who want to throw away publics school, and those who think the status quo is fine. Neither is right. We have to have public schools. It’s one the bedrocks of our country and our communities. It’s an equity issue – without public schools, there is no equity. Without public schools, only those who have money will have education. I can’t conceive of a time when we go back to that approach.

    But I am also past the point of telling the status quo folks, the people who don’t want anything to change, that “folks, we have choice in our system already.” They can’t keep arguing willy nilly against school choice. It’s gratuitous by now.

    We have charter schools – which are, by the way, public. Should  we insist on quality? No question, but they exist and I don’t think they will go away. Does the system need to change? Absolutely, but at the end of this, there has to be some option for parents to send their children somewhere else if their school district is failing.

    And, frankly, I tell anyone arguing against some constrained, well-orchestrated, well-designed school choice option that they need to meet with parents and look them in the eye and tell them, “Your children don’t deserve to go to a good school.” I am sorry if I am making it personal, but it is very personal. It is very emotional.