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Push to better urban schools criticized

February 22, 2001
By: Nick White
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A senator's impassioned plea to devote more resources to Missouri's urban schools drew sharp criticism Thursday from Boone County Sen. Ken Jacob.

Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, fulfilled a promise to make urban education a priority by calling attention to the "crisis" in the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts.

"Does anybody doubt that we are in a crisis?" Kinder asked the Senate. "I don't like to overuse ... that word, but these children are not going to get an education."

Jacob, a Democrat, criticized Kinder, president pro tem of the Senate, and the Republicans for acting irresponsibly by drumming up emotional support for a problem but offering no solution.

"OK, it's a big problem," Jacob said. "I think they are still acting like a minority party. Now as a majority party, they have a big, big problem. Let's figure out how to solve these problems."

Kinder told reporters after the Jan. 24 special election that the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts would be one of his main concerns. The GOP became the Senate majority party for the first time in 53 years after the election.

"One of the earliest things I will do will be to convene hearings on the crisis in our urban school systems in both St. Louis and Kansas City," Kinder said Jan. 24. "I want to hear from parents about what they want from the schools that they pay for. I want to hear especially from parents about whether they want more choices."

Kinder said plans for those hearings will start "in the next few days." and those hearings will include senators, parents and school representatives.

Jacob said he supports discussion about the problems with urban schools. But, Jacob said he was, first, unsure as to what change Kinder wanted and, second, skeptical about change coming from Kinder's hearings.

Jacob told the Senate the state's education problems are not in the districts, they are in Jefferson City.

"The problem starts right here in this building," Jacob said. "Certainly, the legislators have caused it."

Kinder's argument stemmed from a Feb. 22 published report that said the Kansas City school Superintendent, Benjamin Demps Jr., has urged the state to take control immediately of the city's school district. Kinder said Demps is the 19th superintendent in 30 years to hold that job.

Kinder, whose face was red and voice feverishly passionate during his Senate address, said he was upset about Demps' call for help and the disarray of the Kansas City school district.

"How many more headlines like this do we need?" Kinder asked. "I don't know if the state can do any better, but ... we need some answers."

The General Assembly passed a bill in 1998 after long, intense debate to desegregate the state's school system, which, in effect, turned over control of Missouri's public schools from the courts to the legislators.

The bill allocated an extra $1,000 per pupil, and it slowed the payment of desegration payments from the state's coffers to the courts. It also led to the formation of "charter schools," which Kinder supports.

"We can do a better job educating these kids than the courts," Jacob said, recalling the three-year-old battle.

Charter schools, Kinder said, give more choice to parents in their children's education.

"We have great experience in urban educational innnovation in our state," Kinder said, citing the 17 charter schools in Kansas City and four in St. Louis.