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Don Corrigan

Rex Sinquefield & Missouri Public Education

February 28, 2012
Rex Sinquefield deserves praise for his work in bringing the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to the Central West End.

An important goal of the Chess Center is to encourage scholastic chess programs, especially in St. Louis Public Schools, in part, because the game has obvious behavioral and cognitive benefits for district students.

Sinquefield has earned plaudits for his chess club efforts. Sinquefield has understandably drawn some harsh criticism for a number of his other ideas on improving schools and government in Missouri.

• Public schools aren't happy that he champions school vouchers and the establishment of charter schools.

• Public school teachers aren't happy that he pours thousands of dollars into the campaigns of state legislators who embrace his idea of ending teacher tenure.

• Public school officials aren't happy with his ideas to replace the state income tax with a huge hike in sales taxes. They predict revenue losses from his "Fair Tax" that would be disastrous for public education.

With all this unhappiness, it comes as no surprise that educators jumped all over Sinquefield when he foolishly linked public schools with the Ku Klux Klan in a recent speech at Lindenwood University. Sinquefield's presentation included the remark:

"…a long time ago, decades ago, the Ku Klux Klan got together and said: 'How can we really hurt the African American children permanently? How can we ruin their lives? And what they designed was the public school system.…'"

"Beyond offensive." That's how Vic Lenz of the Lindbergh School Board characterized his remarks. Lenz is also president of the Missouri School Board Association and the MSBA is condemning the Klan comments.

"His remarks indicate remarkable hostility toward the public schools in Missouri," noted Lenz. "Candidates for the legislature or state office should not be accepting campaign contributions from him and should return those they have received."

If all legislators and candidates for statehouse returned contributions, the dollars would pile up in millions. The Associated Press reports that Sinquefield also has given $2.5 million to Let The Voters Decide, a group which is working to get his idea to abolish the state income tax onto the ballot in November 2012.

School board members across the state are urging residents not to sign petitions to get the so-called Fair Tax onto the ballot. They say Sinquefield's "Fair Tax" idea is better labeled as a regressive "Everything Tax."

Schools' Silver Lining

If public schools see Sinquefield as a dark cloud hanging over their efforts, they have to see Rick Sullivan as a silver lining – and a champion for their future. Sullivan heads the St. Louis schools three-person Special Administrative Board.

Sullivan's charge is to help bring back accreditation to the district, which it lost in 2007. He has taken his share of criticism, but Sullivan is making discernible progress. There are tangible improvements in academic achievement, stabilized finances, and crucial administrator-employee relations in the district.

Everyone in the region should be rooting for the efforts of Sullivan, his colleagues Richard Gaines and Melanie Adams, and Superintendent Kelvin Adams. When the St. Louis School District regains its accreditation, there will be fewer calls, like those of Sinquefield, for vouchers, redirection of tax money and penalizing teachers.

Additionally, re-accreditation will remove another threat to public education which has come to be symbolized in the Turner court case. The Turner case would allow students from unaccredited districts to enroll in – and overwhelm – school districts that enjoy accreditation.

The ultimate outcome of the Turner case could mean financial chaos for public education in the St. Louis region. Those who oppose public education would welcome chaos, just as they have probably cheered Sinquefield's linking public education to the Klan.

However, as MSBA's Lenz stressed, public education goes back to the origins of this country – far before the Klan's arrival on the scene. Thomas Jefferson saw public education as vital to the republic and to a healthy democracy.

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