By Sherry Lagares
It was just another ordinary day. I was at home in my office quietly working. Agonizing over a speech, I was to present in Michigan in 3 days, on education and our legal system. Adding even more pressure, in the audience was to be a Michigan, Supreme Court Justice, when the telephone rang. Little did I know, what was waiting for me on the other end of the line, would change 130,000 children’s lives, restore a sense of trust, integrity, and produce the material for my upcoming speech. I answered the phone as I normally would. Hello, this is Sherry. “You need to get to the State Capital, right away. The Missouri State Statute on how children with disabilities are educated, has just been repealed,” I knew that it was the Landmark victory in the Lagares Case (a seven-year long hard fought battle) a few months earlier, that had sparked the repeal. I found myself totally unprepared for a battle of this magnitude. Did I have the strength and ability to embark on what was to become yet another landmark victory? I had to develop a plan of action and fast. I had 60 minutes on my way to the capital to prepare for what my opponents had months or possibly years to prepare for.
On the short trip to the Capital, I placed call after call to elicit help and support. I quickly realized with only 3 days left in the session, the opinion of most, was nothing could be done. I was told, once legislators vote on a bill and pass it, they do not admit error or if they do admit error, they do nothing about it. Thirty minutes into my trip, I discovered how the amendment had been added to an unrelated educational bill at the last minute, of the last few days of session. The representative responsible for adding the amendment described it as, “just bringing state law into alignment with federal law,” knowing full well Missouri had a higher standard (Lagares v. Camdenton). I was out raged at the tactics and the hypocrisy that were used to trick our legislators into passage of the bill. I believed the legislators would be just as out raged. Fearing, yet respecting my debating skills, my opponents knew if they were to allow hearings and legitimate debate on a statute of such magnitude, the result would not bring about the change they desired. Therefore, they once again resorted to appalling practices to accomplish their set out goal.
I pleaded the case to representatives and senators of both parties, and they felt my rage, as well. My representative graciously agreed to write a petition, asking the Governor to veto and return the passed bill for further consideration, knowing it would possible be to his own political demise. Rules prohibited me from circulating the petition. Therefore, because time was of the essence, the case had to be pleaded to legislators inside the house and senate and in hallways. Keeping a low profile to not alert my opponents was of the utmost importance. I knew many of my opponents in the educational and legal world, and had studied and researched them. However, I did not know who my legislative opponents were.
On my second day at the capital, I met a representative in the hallway, introduced myself and began to state my case. He became nervous and quite rude. Cutting our conversation short. He raced away and turned to me and said, “I am the Speaker of the House.” Moments later, I ran into my representative and told him of the strange conversation I had just had. He informed me of the Speaker’s involvement in the amendment and what was about to happen. Only minutes after our conversation ended, pure chaos and panic broke out in the legislative hallways and at the Governor’s Office. Telephone lines were jammed, emails began to pour in, and people were racing around the capital as if they were on a go cart track. Recognizable educational opponents were at the capital within, the half hour.
The Speaker immediately signed the bill and it was hand delivered to the Governors Office, for his immediate signature. With only 66-signatures, from both parties, additional letters were written from senators and representatives and were immediately delivered to the Governor, asking for a veto on the bill.
Election year, and the misinformation disseminated to an organized pipeline of opposition, and after weeks of waiting and continued pressure, the veto did not happen. The bill was signed into law. However, the petition and letters were later used in the Supreme Court Case. The petition, letters and actions that were taken and the length our elected officials were willing to go, was in itself, the victory I had desired.
Despite what many might have believed, Legislators will admit to making a mistake and do have integrity and the willingness to do something about it. The battles into the complex world of education and politics can perhaps be described as, “treading into shark infested waters,” one must be aware of the dangers, as well as the beauty. Battles of how education is to be delivered or received will undoubtedly continue to rage for many years to come, from the preschool level to the controversial on-line law degrees. Once again, battling some of the most powerful groups in the country, I was able to accomplish yet another victory and restore lost confidence in our elected officials. For me to have fought such an intriguing battle with some of the most unselfish, caring, and integrity ridden elected officials was, pure pleasure. My life experiences, education, intuitiveness, and agile abilities have prepared me for the future.