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Newspapers around Missouri recently reported the findings of a statewide survey. The poll results were fairly direct: Students in the state's public schools need to learn basic academic skills that have some meaning in the real world.

Who did this poll? The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The survey was part of the department's ongoing effort to write education standards for all of Missouri schools. The impetus for the standards came from the Outstanding Schools Act, otherwise known as Senate Bill 380, which imposed a $310 million tax increase without a vote of the people.

How much did the poll cost? The pollsters took $64,000 from Missouri taxpayers to conduct the survey and its accompanying focus groups. Interestingly, the focus groups weren't intended to be representative of Missourians at large. Rather, the focus groups were carefully selected to represent blocs of Missourians most likely to be have some pretty strong feelings about the whole standardization process: fundamentalist Christians, blacks and labor unions.

Why is any of this significant? For one thing, the poll results have never been officially released. The Associated Press got a copy of the survey and distributed its story all over the state. But these findings were summarized months ago in a series of columns by the Southeast Missourian's associate publisher, Peter Kinder.

It is pretty easy to see why the education gurus in state government weren't too keen to make much of the poll, even after taxpayers had paid for it. The results are pretty straightforward. Almost any Missourian with a lick of common sense could have told the state the same thing -- at no cost.

Meanwhile, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been wallowing in its efforts to write the standards mandated by SB 380. The first attempt, which was pretty much a pot of goulash with some trendy spices thrown in to make it look like the cooks knew what they were doing, got scrubbed when enough objections were raised that no one -- teachers, administrators, students, parents -- could understand the neo-educational gobbledygook.

The drafters of the education standards have been hard at work this summer trying to find a way to say, in plain English, what the goals of public education should be. There has been some success in getting clear and measurable objectives into the new draft, but it will take a careful review to determine if education will be better off as a result.

Gov. Mel Carnahan, meanwhile, would like nothing more than for the embarrassing standards to go quietly onto a dusty shelf somewhere in the bowels of the education department. He would likely accept almost anything uncontroversial at this point. After all, no governor so intent on re-election needs a fuss over something so important as education.

For once, a politician's lust for votes may actually be working in the voters' favor. After all, teachers have always known what to teach and how to teach it. The system crumbled a couple of decades ago when governors and other politicians started writing new education standards.