SPS board officer supports bill to give districts more autonomy from DESE rules

A Springfield school board officer traveled to the state capitol Tuesday to urge support for a legislative proposal aimed at granting greater autonomy to districts that use local tax dollars to fund a significant portion of the cost of educating students.

Board vice president Maryam Mohammadkhani testified on behalf of Senate Bill 54 in front of the Senate committee on education and workforce development.

Maryam Mohammadkhani
Maryam Mohammadkhani

The bill proposed by state Sen. Jill Carter, a Republican representing Jasper and Newton counties, calls for districts that cover at least 75% of their "per pupil funding" with local tax dollars to be designated a "local control school district" in the eyes of the state.

Under the proposal, the designation would exempt such districts from certain performance reporting requirements and rules set by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, such as:

  • Participating in the Missouri School Improvement Program, or MSIP, a series of measures used to determine state accreditation;

  • Submitting to annual performance reviews by DESE;

  • Developing and reporting teaching standards to the state;

  • Maintaining a school improvement plan in any format provided by or approved by DESE;

  • Administering state-mandated exams.

The proposal would allow the designated districts to choose any nationally recognized assessment test program in lieu of the Missouri Assessment Program.

"I ask you as a parent who understands the plight of many other parents, please don't give up on public schools," she said. "Please ease the burden on our teachers and our schools by supporting Senate Bill 85."

She argued the legislation seeks to "introduce choice that is so coveted by parents."

"With this bill you put districts in the driver's seat and you even out this playing field, letting public schools compete to be the choice for parents," she said, in the hearing.

"If you believe in limited government, if you believe in local control, if you believe in free market competition, if you believe in the foundations that make our state and nation great, then please believe in his bill."

Under the proposal, the designated districts may continue to receive state funding and apply for state and federal grants as long as local tax funding to educate students remains at 75% or more.

Mohammadkhani, elected in April 2021, testified Tuesday that she was excited that the current language in the Senate bill meant the Springfield district would qualify for the designation.

"Please let schools do their jobs by letting them choose what they do, choose how they teach and choose how they assess. Lessen this bureaucracy that drains the dollars and the workforce," she said. "DESE was designed to inform and support but now it controls and impedes."

Mohammadkhani said testifying was 'right thing to do'

Reached by phone Tuesday, Mohammadkhani said she became interested in the bill after attending the recent 2023 Salute to Missouri legislators.

She met with the bill sponsor and state Sen. Rick Brattin, a Republican from Bates, Cass and Johnson counties. He is vice chair of the committee that she addressed.

Mohammadkhani said a legislative assistant from Carter's office asked if she'd testify. "I just thought about it some and decided it was the right thing to do."

The hearing also included testimony from state education groups and officials from other districts.

The Springfield board adopted a legislative platform in late 2022 that advocates for "local control" but the board has not yet talked about this piece of legislation, or taken a stand on the bill, in a public meeting.

The district employs a lobbyist but it is not unusual for school officials to testify, on behalf of the district, in support or opposition of bills that directly impact public education.

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In this case, Mohammadkhani was not asked by the SPS board or district officials to speak out.

Mohammadkhani said she notified Superintendent Grenita Lathan and board president Denise Fredrick that she planned to testify, as an individual, on behalf of the legislation.

"Pretty much everybody knew I was going to do this," she said.

'Grave disservice to both students and teachers'

Mohammadkhani has been an outspoken proponent of reducing technology use in schools and ensuring students have access to textbooks and other hands-on learning materials.

She focused much of her testimony Tuesday on what she described as one of the "main burdens placed on districts" by the DESE: "The early and excessive use of technology in classrooms."

Echoing comments made in Springfield board meetings, Mohammadkhani told the the committee that technology has "replaced conversation, play and creativity and, in many ways, replaced our teachers."

Mohammadkhani, a retired physician, said students' learning and socialization has suffered as a result.

"Extended screentimes negatively impact sleep, vision, physical and psychological development and on top of all that the loss of textbooks and written resources with coinciding curriculum reform push parents farther away, slowly breaking our family bonds," she said.

"This pendulum is swinging back, though, and most have realized that this breakdown in the classical classroom structure and this imbalanced digital approach contribute to the discipline nightmare and the decline in learning."

In spring 2022, after board members — especially Mohammadkhani and Kelly Byrne — raised questions about the appropriate level of technology use and access in the district, changes were made.

The Springfield school board approved a legislative platform for this session.
The Springfield school board approved a legislative platform for this session.

Lathan, who also heard from parents on the issue, announced a series of changes aimed at reducing reliance on technology in teaching and learning, especially among younger students. They included not sending devices home in certain grades, turning off access to elementary devices during specific evening and overnight hours, and training for employees.

The district also launched a full-scale review of the role technology plays in teaching and learning.

At the hearing, Mohammadkhani argued students don't need access to technology at age 4 to succeed in school.

"It is crystal clear to us in medicine that the later we introduce screens the better it is for the development of that child," she said. "Unfortunately, districts can't get away from it because of DESE. All state standardized testing is done electronically and if you want to have a third-grader that performs well you need to start them young."

Many districts in Missouri provide one-to-one technology for students to use during the school day or at home and the reliance on technology intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Mohammadkhani said technology is a powerful tool but the aggressive expansion of devices in schools was a "grave disservice to both students and teachers" and lined the pockets of technology education companies.

"I ask you where is DESE in all of this? DESE is too busy asking you for even more money for (the) social emotional wellness of our students," she said, in the hearing. "When districts can't do their job, it doesn't matter how much money you pour into the system, education will not occur."

Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to criley@news-leader.com.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: SPS board officer supports bill to give districts more autonomy