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The Education of Missouri's Next Governor

October 05, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With schools in St. Louis and Kansas City facing accreditation loss, education is an especially urgent issue in this year's governor's race. The two candidates, Democratic state Treasurer Bob Holden and U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, R-Mo., have differing philosophies -- and different proposals -- about how to deal with the crisis.

Holden projects an almost canine-like loyalty to public schools, while Talent is looking at novel ways, including giving state money to private schools.

But the pair's differences don't stop at their proposals. They have strikingly contrasted educational backgrounds that illuminate their philosophical divergences.

Bob Holden

BIRCH TREE, Mo., - The one-room schoolhouse where Bob Holden went to first grade still stands, dusty and cob-webbed, brush and weeds overgrown around it. The boys' and girls' outhouses still squat against the barbed-wire fence of an adjacent farm.

A cemetery shares the hilltop with the school. Cactus grows among the grass where stones mark the graves of Holden's 19th century relatives.

That one-room schoolhouse where Holden began his public education actually rests in nearby Corinth -- a loose collection of farms located miles away from the highway that leads to Birch Tree. Made of stone with a tin roof, the school dates back to 1929. Inside, it resembles a church with rows of pews facing a podium.

Holden went to first grade here before going to another one-room schoolhouse across town. In a campaign commercial, he stands in front of the other school, reading his second grade report card.

Bertha Bradford was Holden's first grade teacher, teaching all the subjects except science. The 25-student school didn't have that subject.

"He was a good student and a good boy," said Bradford. Now at age 88, she says clearly remembers Holden. Bradford said Holden could point out 20 states on the map and learned to spell over 400 words that year.

Although the school had basic textbooks, she said, they had to raise their own money for anything additional. They held a "pie-supper" to buy a globe. Students mowed the lawn for free.

For his high school years, the treasurer went to Birch Tree High School, the cultural center of this town, now with a population of 599. In Holden's time, the town was a little smaller. It's the kind of town where reporters touring the old high school are trusted with the keys to lock up after looking around.

Most residents now work in one of the many wood mills, but in the 60s the town offered a few more occupational options including a shoe factory. Residents say when the railroad left town, the jobs went with it.

Holden graduated in 1967. Although much larger than the one-room schoolhouses, the high school graduated only about 25-30 students each year then, according to 1966 grad Judy Barnes.

She said there were about 12 teachers, including the principal and superintendent. Each subject had its own classroom among the nine the three-story brick building held.

There wasn't a wide variety of courses.

They taught Spanish here for a while, she said, but "we didn't learn much of it." There was home economics, but no industrial arts.

But not all was scarce at Birch Tree High. Individual attention from teachers was abundant as class sizes ranged from 9-15, said Keith Bowden, a 1956 graduate of the high school and now vice president of the Bank of Birch Tree. In that respect, "it was almost like a private school," he said.

In the 50s and 60s, he said, the registrar at the College of the Ozarks -- a Branson school where tuition is paid by working on campus -- was from Birch Tree, so a lot of the kids went to college there. The small course list, however, meant many Birch Tree grads had to take preliminary classes when they got to college, he said.

"While we may not have had a lot of courses, what we were taught we learned well," he said.

No one in Birch Tree is educated at the high school anymore. The community decided to hop on the consolidation bandwagon in 1971, and teamed up with rival town Mountain View. The bigger Liberty High School rests closer to Mountain View on the highway connecting the towns.

Now, the old high school is used as a community center and library. Arts and crafts fairs and women holding baby showers now rent out the wooden-floored gym where Holden played basketball. Holden's campaign had a rally there last spring.

His experience in small rural schools shaped his allegiance to public education, Holden said.

"It was a commitment on the part of people there with very little resources to give me an opportunity to move ahead and for every other child to move ahead," Holden said in an interview earlier this fall.

"They made a commitment to the public schools. And what we can never turn our back on is to help every child in the state of Missouri whether they live in urban areas or rural areas. We must remember that public education gives them an opportunity to take a leg up in this economic ladder."

Jim Talent

KIRKWOOD, Mo., - A small town outside St. Louis until the metropolis' growth enveloped it many years ago, Kirkwood retains some of the charm of Rockwell's America -- a downtown business district and old Victorian houses -- while it gained the prosperity and modernity of suburbia.

One of the wealthiest and most conservative neighborhoods in St. Louis County, Kirkwood consistently has been Republican.

That party's candidate for governor Jim Talent was one of 652 who graduated in 1973 from the immense, public Kirkwood High School. Sprawling 47 tree-lined acres with a student population of more than 2000, the school was ranked as one of the best public school districts in the state.

In its abundant space, the school consisted of a handful of disconnected one-story buildings. The campus, built in 1954, boasted a staff of about 100 teachers and 75-100 classrooms. The activities confronting stundents were many and diverse.

In the early 70s, there was already a computer science club, an environmentalists club, German and Spanish clubs, even a film club where students made short films. A picture in the 1973 yearbook shows students peering through microscopes in a science lab.

Students put out a bi-weekly newspaper, the CALL. There were swimming teams, golf, field hockey and soccer in addition to the major sports.

The auditorium, which has since been replaced by a state-of-the-art facility, could hold about 1000 people. The whole town of Birch Tree -- Holden's hometown -- even if each resident brought a friend, could have attended a school production.

But not everything in Kirkwood was lemonade on wrap-around porches.

Hunkered in a corner of the city lies an old black enclave, Meacham Park. With its own churches and shops, Meacham was a self-contained remnant of segregation.

"There were, in the early 70s, potential and actual racial issues at the school, as those came to surface in the community they came to surface at the school," said John Dean, an art teacher who came to Kirkwood High in 1974.

He said in those days he saw few black faces in positions of leadership like class offices or cheerleaders. But, he said, the school was one of first two schools in St. Louis County to participate in the voluntary desegregation program.

The year 1973 brought several new clubs to Kirkwood High: a black awareness club which put on a production of "A Raisin in the Sun," and an all-black, girls Pompon Squad.

Keeping with the spirit of "self expression" so popular in the late 60s and early 70s, Dean said the school offered students more options in the classes they took, even more than it offers now. There was more emphasis on student choice than on academic rigor, he said.

Self-expression also brought along with it a host of problems, according to guidance counselor Ken Finnerty, who came to Kirkwood High in 1968.

"The big issue at the school in early 70's were dress codes, hair length, and psychedelic drugs," he said. "We brought in recovering addicts to talk to the kids."

A drawing in the yearbook shows mushrooms whose dimensions are psychedelically distorted. Talent's picures in his junior and senior year annuals reveal a short-haired, bespectacled teen in an oxford shirt.

"I felt like I was a beneficiary of a good education," Talent said. "I had teachers that really stimulated me. I learned how to write in a history course where the teacher made us write and rewrite until we got it right."

In the years since Talent has moved on from Kirkwood High, its current principal has taken the school into the world of private funding.

When the school was building its new state-of-the-art theatre in 1995 after a six-year fight to fund the project, it fell $500,000 short. In came prominent alumni Earl and Myrtle Walker, giving the school $170,000.

That donation got principal Franklin McCallie thinking. He raised the rest of the money through smaller gifts and the project was complete. There was even enough money to connect the new theatre to one of the older classroom buildings so students wouldn't have to walk in the rain.

That sort of melding of private money for public schools "is not very common, but not unheard of," said Jim Morris, spokesman for the state Education Department. "What's more common is for schools to form foundation with private money for scholarships and grants for teachers and students to pursue extracurricular studies." Kirkwood has one of those, too.

In Talent's day much like today, most of Kirkwood's graduates went on to college. Former assistant principal Thomas Waltz said students even went to "fine schools, like Princeton." Waltz was at the school from 1971-1974, but he was assigned to the class just below Talent.

"I can walk that campus now, as I am sure Jim (Talent) can, and the campus is much the same," Waltz said.

School Vouchers Debate

JEFFERSON CITY - Although you wouldn't know it from his campaign, GOP candidate for governor Jim Talent is a supporter of school vouchers -- the controversial proposal to use government money to help parents send their kids to private schools.

In the state House of Representatives and in Congress, the Republican has pushed or voted for bills many times that would provide what he calls "school choice." But in his drive for the governor's mansion, he has put the idea in the backseat, saying vouchers are just one of many options to help struggling schools in St. Louis and Kansas City.

"What I am going to do is talk to the municipal and civic leadership and all options are going to be on the table except the option of going on the way we're going," he said. "So, it'll be charter schools, or some form of parental choice or new governing structures for the schools in St. Louis and Kansas City."

Nonetheless, his foe, state Treasurer Bob Holden, has sought to show Talent as abandoning public schools for the voucher idea.

"You can't save Missouri's public schools by starving them," Holden said in a debate in Cape Girardeau. He said vouchers take much-needed funds away from public schools and give them to private ones.

But to Talent, the situation in the state's urban schools is severe enough to warrant drastic measures.

"We're not going to take another six or seven years as they've done in state government to decide these schools aren't acceptable . . . because these kids are not getting an education that they need and it's an injustice to them," he said.

Holden's campaign said they are studying the situation in St. Louis and Kansas City while waiting for the accreditation drama to unfold.

The Democrat doesn't rule out some form of school choice, said Patrick Lynn, Holden's policy director. But, for Holden, parents could only choose schools within the same district.

Talent insists he won't push vouchers down anyone's throats.

"I've said it many times, I am running for governor. I am not running for dictator," he said. "You don't go in and tell people what they are going to do."

Underneath this philosophical debate rests a real crisis for the parents of children in St. Louis and Kansas City. The schools there have been judged to be so bad as to fail state accreditation standards.

St. Louis has kept its accredition only because of the desegregation court-case settlement agreement. As part of that agreement, Missouri's Education Department agreed to give St. Louis two years to recuperate before it would face the potential loss of accreditation.

Kansas City has kept its accredition, at least for the time being, only because the federal courts have blocked state efforts to strip accredition from the school.