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Group Seeking End to Missouri Teacher Tenure Got Help from K-12 Chief Nicastro

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro provided advice to a group that is pushing for a 2014 ballot initiative that would end tenure for teachers in the state, the Associated Press reported Nov. 20.

According to emails obtained by the AP, Nicastro, who was appointed by the state school board in 2009 advised the group about the wording of the initiative and reviewed a final draft of it before it was filed with Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kaner last March. The practical affect seems to have been to try to make the initiative more appealing.

The emails include an October 2012 exchange between Nicastro and Kate Casas, the leader of a group backing the initiative, The Children's Education Council of Missouri. Casas discussed changes to the draft language of the bill based on Nicastro's recommendations. Nicastro then forwarded the email to members of her staff and said the topic should be discussed during a closed session—but didn't include the section of the email where Casas' referenced Nicastro's suggested wording.

Casas subsequently send Nicastro a revised version of the initiative. If the initiative's supporters gather 160,000 signatures in support of it, the initiative will be placed on the November 2014 state ballot. 

The emails were made public through a public-information request made by the state affiliate of the National Education Association, which opposes the initiative. The initiative would require teachers' employment to depend on student achievement, instead of providing them with tenure protections. 

In an interview with the AP, Nicastro said she couldn't recall why she would have removed the section of the email from Casas. She said she neither supported nor opposed the initiative, but was simply providing the same kind of help that she would provide to any group seeking to change state law. Casas, in turn, said she didn't think Nicastro's involvement with the initiative was inappropriate. But Missouri NEA affiliate political director Mark Jones said it was clear evidence of "collusion" between Nicastro and the initiative's supporters.

A big-money backer of the initiative is Rex Sinquefield, a retired financial executive and Missouri resident who has his own website with a section about his priorities for education: "Kids should not be stuck in failed school districts. Along with thousands of other Missourians, the Sinquefields support education policies that include open enrollment, charter school expansion, and teacher-tenure reform. School districts and school leaders should be accountable for students' performance and educational well-being." 

In May, the state board approved the basic structure of a new teacher-evaluation system, and pilot-testing of new evaluations took place in 100 school districts in the state during the 2012-13 academic year. This new evaluation system includes measures of student performance. Nicastro helped to guide through the creation of the new system, but seeking to change tenure protections presents different policy (and political) pitfalls.  

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