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Practicing what they teach

March 29, 2004
By: Alex Yalen
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -- Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-University City, gets bombarded by lobbyists every day. But this time, during a Wednesday morning session in late Februrary, it was different.

Fraser was handed a business card by one of the thousands of lobbyist and special interest advocates who converge on the state.

She took a quick glance and stored it away. She walked over to the side gallery of the House chamber -- again, nothing out of the ordinary -- and began chatting it up with a reporter.

But things took a suprising twist when the St. Louis County legislator felt a tap on her shoulder from the lobbyist. It was a face from her past.

The lobbyist was Patrick Bowen, from Southwest Bank. He represents several credit and banking issues that were being discussed that day. Quickly, Fraser's look of steely professional determination gave way to a face reflecting equal parts surprise and delight.

Fraser had taught Bowen in high school.

Fraser is one of 17 legislators in Missouri's House and Senate that likely could tell similar stories. Some, like Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring, claim they actually need to teach more students -- "so I can get more votes," he said, laughing while recalling the time he employed former students in an election campaign.

While there are many legislators who have served on school boards, there are just 17 of the statee's 197 lawmakers who actually have taught as licensed teachers in a Missouri classroom.

Though state government is their second career, for many of these teachers-turned-lawmakers they describe it as the next logical step in a lifetime of passion for, and commitment to, public service.

"I always wanted to move from talking about it (public policy) to doing it," said Fraser, who taught government for 22 years in several St. Louis area public schools. She walks around the House floor with a binder leaking papers; she interrupts an interview to argue for an amendment to a bill.

For Fraser, it seems like a natural fit. But, for others, the process of becoming a legislator has been slower, less dramatic -- more evolutionary than immediate.

Rep. Jerry Bough, R-Nixa, had to be cajoled into politics. After 17 years in the classroom as a history and physical education teacher, and then another 18 as a principal, Bough said he has found legislative work rewarding -- but also lonely.

"I thought it would be a history experience, and it has been," he said. "But being away from home is something I struggle with. My kids are gone, so my wife is home alone. My son coaches, but I can't see him. That has been very difficult."

Much like the politics of education, the demographics behind Missouri's teacher-lawmakers are a complicated picture. They come from all corners of the state, from rural areas and urban areas, from rich districts and poor ones.

Their respective career paths are equally diverse. Some were coaches; some were elementary school teachers, then principals, then superintendents, others stuck to high school, and one -- Sen. Childers -- taught overseas with the Peace Corps, in Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

In total, there are 10 Democrats and seven Republicans in the group. But many of these teachers say that partisanship -- which often seems to permeate so many other aspects of the battle over education funding -- does not always define their relationships with each other.

"Education can probably bridge partisan lines because everyone realizes it's the basis of society," said Childers, who spent 10 years as a chemistry and biology teacher and is now part of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "There's consensus on that."

On Gov. Bob Holden's tax-raising measure, they're divided; some, like Republican Sen. Childers support some type of increase, while other Republicans like Bough and Rep. Danie Moore, R-Fulton, a former English teacher, do not.

Despite general agreement that funding schools equally is a major priority, they don't all agree on the success of the aid-distributing Foundation Formula.

Typically, said Fraser, if there is a division among the teacher-lawmakers, it falls along urban and rural lines. But the regional divisions are getting smaller, say some former teachers.

"Some of the problems rural Missouri has been facing for years -- like schools being shut down, students being bussed -- is now being experienced in St. Louis city," Moore said. "That gap is closing."

If they can't always agree on policy matters, they do agree that their view -- from the classroom, from the "trenches," as Fraser said -- is as important as ever. It's a perspective that some would like to see more of.

"I wish more teachers would go into politics," said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, whose resume also includes two years of teaching language arts and journalism. Because they tend to have a younger retirement age, and because of term limits, Bray said, there are going to be opportunities in the future for those looking to make the jump.

"I've tried to recruit other educators," she said. "I tell them that we're going to need new candidates -- and we're going to need more candidates."