SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Two Springfield Board of Education candidates are pushing back against mainstream education ideology, vowing to increase transparency between the district and parents and focus on academic progress.
Kelly Byrne and Steve Makoski are both focused on improving areas where the district has seen deterioration – namely, academic achievement.
SPS’ average ACT score has steadily declined over the last decade and fallen below the national average of 20.3. According to Makoski, the average ACT score for SPS currently sits at 19.5.
“My priority is academic excellence, which shockingly seems to be in contrast to some other people’s priorities,” Byrne, who has two kids attending school at SPS, told The Heartlander. “Even when you look at the strategic plan, there’s just really no mention of academics or curriculum. That document is outdated and needs to be completely redone. Everything at the core level needs to shift to a focus of providing the best possible education for every student.”
“That score of 19.5 will not even be entry level into Missouri State University or any other university we have here in Springfield,” Makoski said in a campaign video.
Those declining test scores aren’t exclusive to Springfield high school students, either. According to Byrne, SPS’ average “Measures of Academic Progress” scores for elementary students also have decreased, and he believes he knows the reason.
“Only 32% of our grade school kids are performing at or above grade level in math, which is a really shocking number,” Byrne said. “Quite literally, our district has changed its mindset from the academic excellence of all students, to being ‘personal, engaging and relevant.’”
According to Byrne, the school district changed its mission statement eight years ago from focusing on the “academic excellence” of students to focusing on being “engaging, relevant and personal.” There is no mention of academic excellence or achievement in SPS’ current mission statement.
“It’s not that they aren’t aware of this. It just seems like they’ve just been more focused on other things and made some excuses as to why the declining achievement is happening,” Byrne said.
Another monumental priority for both candidates is improving transparency between school districts and parents, specifically regarding Critical Race Theory.
“Transparency is so important,” Makoski said. “I think everybody in the southwest part of Missouri can agree that we should not be teaching Critical Race Theory in our schools. I think the bigger issue at play here is: Parents should not have to worry about what’s being taught in our schools under a code name for CRT.”
“Critical Race Theory is divisive in nature and it’s not the way we should be approaching interaction amongst ourselves in society,” Byrne adds. “There’s a lot of people who think that if you oppose Critical Race Theory, then you oppose teaching real history. But that’s not at all what it is. I’m a big proponent of teaching history, the good and the bad, and teaching it without a filter of trying to tell kids what they should learn from it.
“Teach kids how to learn, not what to learn. Teach kids how to think, not what to think.”
Parents across the country have grown concerned over the introduction of CRT and its principles in their children’s schools, and it’s been no different in Springfield.
Last fall, after an SPS teacher revealed the district was encouraging the use of CRT concepts in classrooms, State Rep. Craig Fishel, R-Springfield, sent a Sunshine Request to the district seeking all documents mentioning or related to CRT. Much to his surprise, SPS responded with an invoice totaling over $190,000 and an estimated timeline of seven years to complete the request.
This caused Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a candidate for U.S. Senate, to step in and request similar records from SPS. Despite the state’s most senior attorney intervening, the school district still refused to honor the request which led to Schmitt suing the district for the alleged Sunshine Law violations.
“[SPS] could absolutely do a better job at being transparent,” Byrne said. “They’ve really made a mess of this. They’ve really come across at times a bit standoffish, as if they somehow have a greater responsibility for our kids than the parents do – as if their opinions on things matter more.”
Additionally, Byrne and Makoski are both concerned about the COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates that were implemented across the school district and the unintended consequences of those restrictions.
“It wasn’t COVID itself, but it was our reaction to COVID,” Byrne said. “All of the missed school time and time out of the classroom, supplanted with so much screen time and whatever else is going on in kids’ homes, has led to some really wild and sad behavior issues.
“I was just talking to a teacher the other night, and she said she and her colleagues agree that this is the worst year ever with students’ discipline.”
Makoski thinks it was a poor decision to give the school district authority to mandate masks, and echoed many parents’ worry that it could have set a dangerous precedent.
“The question is, in our schools, should we mask or not mask?” Makoski asked. “The real question should be, ‘Who has that authority to make that decision?’ The parents have full authority over their children, and those are the people who should be making decisions whether the kids should be masking in schools or not.”