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In response to a scathing St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page indictment of her recent shennanigans – holding preschool funding hostage in order to get back at Kathy Thornberg, a functionary of the Dept. of Elementary and Secondary education who dared defy her – state Senator Jane Cunningham shows us her very thin-skin, while ratcheting up her usual level of self-righteous dudgeon. In a letter to the editor (“Saying no to cookie-cutter ratings”, 4/29), she wants us to know the editorial is wrong about her relationship with conservative education reform guru, and former chancellor of the Washington D.C. School district Michelle Rhee; in fact, she claims, “contrary to what the editorial said, I have met Michelle Rhee on several occasions.” Whoopdy-do.

In her letter Cunningham also disavows any but the most noble motives for attacking Thornberg for her efforts to institute the Quality Ratings System (QRS). According to most authorities, the QRS process consists of developing appropriate, local standards which are then used to monitor preschools’ performance. The ratings that the process yields can be used to help preschools improve their performance and to inform parents about how well schools are performing. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Cunningham, however, claims to be honoring the objections to QRS voiced by “public and nonpublic preschool directors and public school superintendents.” Elsewhere, though, she has indicated that the folks who were objecting most strenuously were mostly from the “non-public … religious or secular” segment of preschool providers. So, what’s the real story? You’re guess is as good as mine and I bet it stays that way.

Cunningham’s major criticism of the DESE version of QRS seems to be that it’s a “cookie-cutter” system that  imposes “one-size-fits-all” evaluative measurements on preschools. Ummm….what am I missing? For fairness sake if nothing else, meaningful evaluative standards need to be uniform. And if they aren’t, of course, they don’t really tell us much. Maybe that’s what some of those folks in the less-regulated “non-public” sphere actually want? Else why object so strenuously to standards that have never actually been tried out here in Missouri in a consistent, across-the-board fashion?

Cunningham’s cookie-cutter argument seems flimsy at best, especially when you remember that she’s one of the people in the legislature fighting hardest to impose teacher evaluations that draw strongly on the standardized test performance of a diverse student population. And she wants to talk about “cookie-cutter” and “one-size-fits-all” evaluative systems?

I’m guessing that the real issue depends on whether the cookie-cutter in question comes from Cunningham’s personal drawer. I don’t know about you, but personally, I prefer my education-flavored cookies to come from the stoves of trained educational professionals, not some pol drunk on Tea Party brew.

Cunningham also writes that:

There have been proposals from legislators to allow for competing rating services, much like there are a variety of national and regionally recognized accreditation companies or testing services from which schools choose. All provide valid information and quality control without subjecting pre-schools to the dictates of one individual whom they may not trust and who doesn’t not value the marketplace, which allows quality choices for families.

Gee, what I want when I go shopping for a pre-school is a bunch of diverse ratings that, for all I know measure apples and oranges. Of course, there’s really no danger of such a evaluative tower of babel since, as Cunningham herself has acknowledged in an article in the St. Louis Beacon last October, the legislature can’t get it together to actually do anything:

Cunningham said that for several years, efforts to enact a rating system for preschools in Missouri were debated in both the House and Senate, but the two chambers could never agree on what such a system should include. In the last two years, she said, the issue gained no traction at all.

Do you think maybe the DESE was just trying to impose some best practices in order to fill up the legislative vacuum? It seems, though, that Cunningham prefers to let Missourians founder in the desert while a bunch of ideologues fight about how to micromanage the details of processes that few of them seem to actually understand in the first place.  

Cunningham also, in a nod to to the de rigueur GOP anti-government rhetoric, writes that QRS would impose onerous “resource-draining, duplicative forms and certifications and rules” on pre-school staff. It may be news to Cunningham, but thorough documentation is essential if the evaluative process is to produce results that have any meaning. It’s particularly essential when funding depends on rankings – along with consistent, uniform standards. Everything, in fact, that the DESE was trying to put in place.

One is forced to conclude that Cunningham and her allies really don’t want information about how various pre-schools compare to get out. She actually stated in an interview in the St. Louis Beacon that

If they [i.e., preschools] don’t submit to her [i.e. DESE employee Kathy Thornberg] one-size-fits-all plan,” Cunningham said, “then when money or whatever vouchers become available to give to income-eligible families to choose a preschool, they won’t have a choice. It dramatically reduces the choices for low-income people.

What I want to know is how making sure that parents don’t have reliable, consistently derived information about how schools compare does so much for choice?

* Very slightly edited for clarity.