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On March 19th, six Democratic state representatives participated in a NOW sponsored forum where they discussed about what it’s like to serve in a majority GOP legislature during a period of radical GOPer fringism. Reps. Jill Schuupp (D-82), Jeanette Mott Oxford (D-59), Ginese Montecillo (D-66), Margo McNeil (D-78), Jeanne Kirkton (D-91) and Rory Ellinger (D-72) spoke for about an hour and a half, mostly in response to written questions solicited from the audience.

General impressions of the meeting were posted here yesterday; questions 1-3 with summaries of the discussion they engendered can be found below the fold. The remaining questions will be be covered in a subsequent posting.

Question 1.  What’s the status of Right to Work here? What’s Nixon’s position?

There seemed to be a general consensus that RTW could potentially become the law in Missouri. If the legislation doesn’t pass in the legislature – Kirkton thinks it will stall in the House – we may see it on the 2012 ballot. Kirkton observed that if it comes to a ballot initiative, supporters will have lots of money at their disposal, and because, since 1978 “people have been hard at work demonizing unions,” it may have a good chance of success.

The all-out rightwing effort to demonize unions, especially teachers unions, came up again and again. In response to the GOP argument that because tax dollars pay the salary of public employees, their union dues should not be used for partisan, Democratic, political purposes, Margo McNeil had – literally – the money quote:

Like the salary I make working ten hours a day while I was teaching didn’t count for anything, and wasn’t really  my own money to spend

Question 2. We recently voted on Prop. B in November and there’s legislation to revoke that. What’s the status, and, again, what will Nixon do?

The speakers had a variety of opinions on this topic; for instance, Ellinger said that Nixon would be “hard-put” to veto the repeal legislation given his need to balance votes from all sides of the “Missourah/Missouri” divide, while McNeil thought it would be foolish of Nixon not to veto it. Montecillo thought that, given the bipartisan support behind Prop. B, the issue could potentially hurt the GOP. All the speakers noted that they got more letters on this issue than any other and that the letters were markedly bipartisan in nature.

Schuupp noted that the repeal legislation would probably pass, and although Democrats were making efforts to amend it and make it less onerous, those efforts would probably come to nothing. While indicating that she would respect the wishes of her constituents and vote against the repeal legislation, she made an interesting point in response to the common argument that the legislature should never overturn the will of the people:

The legislature, just let me say, often overturns the vote of the people. And I will say this, there are certain things, like Prop. A, that, for example, that repeals the, that forces the city to vote every 5 years on the earnings tax, that if and when I get the opportunity to change that, I’m going to vote to repeal the vote of the people. I don’t want to say absolutely unequivocably [sic], I will never override your vote, but I’m going to use my good judgment. That’s what you sent us up there to do.

Echoing a point made by Roy Ellinger about the volume of response generated by the puppy mill issue relative to the small response generated by other issues, Schuupp added:

… we have received more information on puppy mill legislation than any other piece of legislation, and I know people love their animals and I support that love for animals, but, my gosh, we have a lot of people out there hurting too and I sure wish people would – and I am not talking to this group, but the message is larger – I sure wish people would stand up and get that involved when it involves other people too.

Question 3. This week Arne Duncan, who is President Obama’s education guy, stated that No Child Left Behind was set up to make schools and teachers fail. So I’ve got a two-part question: Part 1. What is the future of House Bill 628, the Teacher Continuing Contract Act? Are there good, valid parts of it, or how can we make it better or get rid of it?

Margo McNeil, who is a former teacher and is on the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, gets credit for the most succinct answer when she immediately declared that, “628, as it was originally written, is the worst piece of legislation I have ever seen in my entire career – I mean going back 20 years.” She added that the bill had been improved somewhat in committee, but still violated basic fairness and left teachers open to unfair punitive measures with no real recourse to outside legal appeal.

The other teacher among the Representatives, Genise Montecillo, voiced concern about how the members of the caucus would vote on the bill given the reform focus on St. Louis schools, which, she admitted, have real problems. However, she noted that within a tenure system, bad teachers can be dismissed if administrators do their jobs, and that it unfair to punish an entire profession because of lazy and incompetent administrators. “Show me one study that links poor student achievement to tenure,” she asked.

As far as evaluating teachers on a one-size-fits all system, Montecillo argued that it is difficult to effectively measure student achievement in an across the board fashion. She spoke of her experience with students with behavioral difficulties for whom “being able to sit next to a classmate for an whole class  period, that was progress for them.”

Question 3, Part 2: With education budgets being cut, why are we still wasting time on MAP testing. It consumes the time of education and educators such as teachers and counselors who would rather teach.

Ellinger spoke as a former school board members when he said that testing for comparative purposes is not a bad thing. When test scores dip, it can be used to pinpoint problems and allocate resources.

Montecillo added that while we need accountability in classes, she is concerned about how we test. We compare performance across classes; we do not test improvement over the year.