Last week a wide variety of education experts joined the CEAM Team for a lively discussion on education issues in Missouri during CEAM’s annual Policy Panel.
Former Missouri Sen. Jeff Smith led the discussion, drawing insightful comments from Biome Founding President Bill Kent Jr., K12 Vice President of School Development Chuck Wolfe, EdChoice Director of National Research Michael McShane, and Missouri Charter Public School Commission Executive Director Robbyn Wahby.
Smith kicked off the discussion with his personal experience seeing dysfunction in St. Louis Public Schools, the learning process of founding a charter school and his new focus on helping people escape a revolving-door prison system.
The panel explored the issue of accountability in education and how poorly designed accountability systems lessen the possibility of change and improvement.
“We are kind of doing accountability light or kind of weighting measures that are not really about a child’s academic performance but more about things that are easy to count,” said Robynn Wahby. “That is not the way to do accountability.”
Bill Kent added that Missouri’s current accountability system frequently fails to measure aspects fo school that really matter to parents and can hamper a child’s ability to develop a love for learning.
“Excellence for us is about high standards first, but then also developing that love of learning,” he said.
Chuck Wolfe explored how alternatives to traditional school systems, like virtual education or charter schools, can provide students with an individualized learning environment that helps them excel at their own speed.
“Quality is providing an environment where those students, as they learn, can see demonstrated progress in their academics and know that they are being challenged,” he said. “Choice opens up people to be able to evaluate and make a decision on what aligns with their best interests. The individual who can make the choice best is a parent who is closest to the child — definitely not an official in Jefferson City or a bureaucrat in Washington.”
Wahby made a strong argument for the need for education reform in Missouri.
“In Missouri, 400,000 kids are not reading or counting at grade level and someone needs to help them,” she said, noting that expanding school choice through charter schools can provide the needed help. “People with means have always had a choice. What we are trying to do is make sure that families do not have to leave the communities they love or take out more debt to have the same choices. If you have the money you can buy a good public school.”
Several of the panelists pointed out that expanding school choice was not about getting rid of traditional education options.
“We are a supplemental enhancement of the education landscape we are not a replacement of what currently exists,” said Wolfe.
Mike McShane cited a variety of studies from across the country that showed that increasing choice could improve not only test scores but also longer-term indicators like college success and civic involvement.
“The evidence for school choice is pretty strong,” he said. “It can have real social benefits.”
Despite the proof of those benefits, the panel agreed that achieving reform in Missouri this year would be a difficult battle.
“It is very easy to listen to the most vocal people,” said former Sen. Smith. “There are more people in Jefferson City representing the education circle than there are representing parents. Until that changes, you will have a hard time turning many Democrats from the urban areas.”
He said more conservative rural areas faced a different issue when it came to vocal oppostion against education reform.
“Some areas of Missouri are so decimated economically, that the only two things they have going for them are the school district and the prison,” he said, noting that traditional school administrators used that power to maintain the status quo instead of welcoming reforms which could help improve education.
The panel also agreed that more parents are needed to share both their success stories of how their lives have been changed by charter schools and stories of how they need more options in areas of the state that have only one school choice — the traditional school system.
“Nobody is going to tell the story of the importance of school choice better than the parent who benefits from it,” said Smith.
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