November 1, 2014

Union: MO education commissioner too involved with lobbyist backing teacher tenure initiative

The Missouri chapter of a national teachers’ union says the state’s education commissioner went too far in working with lobbyists creating a ballot initiative to eliminate teacher tenure and institute evaluations based on student performance.

The Missouri-National Education Association obtained a series of e-mails from September of last year through March of this year between Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and other Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials and staff members and Kate Casas, state policy director for the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, a group backed by political activist Rex Sinquefield.

MNEA Political Director Mark Jones says those e-mails show Nicastro editing the proposed initiative and making comments to expand its scope. He says the e-mail communications, “show a disturbing level of collusion and cooperation between a high-ranking official and a paid lobbyist.”

In one e-mail, Nicastro instructs DESE Counsel Mark VanZandt to bring copies of the proposed language to the closed session meeting of the State Board of Education and not to include it in the publicly posted agenda.

After the ballot initiative had been submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office, Nicastro changed a proposed cost estimate to be submitted to the State Auditor from reading local governments could face the “potential for significant unknown costs” to reading “cost unknown.”

Three analyses were done by local school districts in Missouri of the costs of the new evaluations the initiative would require. The Cape Girardeau District says the tests could cost it more than $2.6 million up front and more than $105,000 annually. The Hannibal District put those costs at more than $1.7 million initially and more than $79,000 annually. The Rockwood School District said the initial cost would be more than $10 million, with an annual cost of nearly $557,000.

Jones says MNEA also submitted a cost analysis.

“We estimated the initiative requires high stakes, standardized testing in every subject and every grade,” Jones says, “and will cost at least $200-million, and the upward cost is actually several billion dollars.”

The summary of the Auditor’s fiscal note for the initiative reads, “Decisions by school districts regarding provisions allowed or required by this proposal and their implementation will influence the potential costs or savings impacting each district. Significant potential costs may be incurred by the state and/or the districts if new/additional evaluation instruments must be developed to satisfy the proposal’s performance evaluation requirements.”

Attempts to reach Casas for comment were not responded to by the time this story was posted.

The State Board of Education in a statement says, “It is the duty of Missouri Commissioner of Education to serve all members of the public not just select groups. It’s unfortunate that special interest groups want the Commissioner to choose sides in debates that serve the interests of adults not children.”