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Pressure comes from both sides of Kansas City accreditation debate

Updated: 2013-09-20T12:12:12Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro’s best-laid plan for taking a deep look at reforming Kansas City Public Schools is building to a political boil.

Significant community forces want her to “stick to her guns” and recommend to the state board that the district remain unaccredited.

That, they say, would maintain all of the state’s leverage to act on potential reform ideas from consultants’ work now underway.

A similarly imposing front of superintendents, local school boards and lawmakers want her to reward Kansas City for its current swell in performance and stability with a recommendation for provisional accreditation.

Doing so would spare all area school districts the feared damage of a flawed student transfer law.

“It’s a terrible dilemma she’s in,” said Bill Eddy, a former Kansas City school board member.

The commissioner’s road ahead looked clearer earlier this summer.

A new state law was set to take effect Aug. 28, at which point the state could immediately begin a process of potentially intervening in the control of unaccredited school districts.

The department was taking bids to choose an outside consulting agency to propose a draft plan for reform by January. Accompanying community meetings would strive for a consensus that would set a new course for the 2014-2015 school year.

“It’s going to be an exciting time,” Nicastro told The Star in July.

What happened?

The Kansas City school district pulled off a bit of a surprise, earning a state report card score in August that placed it squarely in the provisional range.

By then, several districts in the St. Louis area were in turmoil complying with the state’s transfer law, which allowed students to transfer out of the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts at the cost of the failing districts.

The specter of bankrupted districts in St. Louis stoked fears in the Kansas City area, which, if the state Supreme Court upholds the law this fall, expects to enter the same transfer storm in the spring if Kansas City remains unaccredited.

Then the state’s choice of consultants for the Kansas City improvement plan, and its backers, stirred up some of education’s ideological divides.

It chose CEE-Trust, the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, an arm of Indianapolis-based Mind Trust that has favored charter schools or charter-like education reforms in its previous work. The $385,000 contract is being funded by the Hall Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation — which has supported many district programs, but also champions charter schools.

Donald Hall Jr. is chairman of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, a collection of powerful city leaders that has been advocating for state intervention in Kansas City Public Schools.

The council’s leadership declined to comment for this story, but several sources affirmed that the group has been urging Nicastro to maintain her charted course.

Nicastro is concerned that the district will have difficulty sustaining its provisional score. The district gained many points that the state’s new accountability system awards for improvement in performance.

“KC’s performance has been extremely low for many years,” Nicastro’s office said in a statement. “While this year’s data contained positive signs, 70 percent of the children served by the district are not proficient, and we don’t know whether the gains shown this year will be sustained. The state needs a strong plan that it can act upon either in the short term or in future years.”

Kansas City does not have to be held to an unaccredited status for a long-term strategy to happen, argue many of the superintendents and lawmakers who want the district to get provisional status.

The short-term emergency of the transfer law should sway the state’s decision, said state Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.

In its current form, the law enabling transfers from unaccredited districts exposes both the sending and receiving districts to financial hardship without adequate means to cope with logistics in the unregulated movement of students.

The law needs to be fixed. Legislators have known this for several years and failed to do so because bills invariably ran aground as lawmakers tried to attach controversial education reform ideas.

The stronger the emergency, Holsman said, the more opportunistic legislators become in bargaining for their chosen causes.

“If Kansas City were awarded provisional before the next session,” Holsman said, “we could negotiate for a middle ground on education reform and not be held hostage by the crisis.”

State Sen. David Pearce, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, filed a bill last session to address the transfer law and watched it stall. He expects he’ll have another go in the next session.

“It’s a huge issue,” Pearce said. And the direction the state turns in addressing its largest urban school districts is complicated by the changing fortunes of the St. Louis and Kansas City districts, he said.

St. Louis, which has been operating under an appointed board since 2007, was awarded provisional status a year ago only to see its performance decline in 2012-2013. It remains provisional, but it scored deep in the unaccredited range — far worse than Kansas City — in the first report card under the state’s new accountability system.

“It’s great that Kansas City made this progress,” Pearce said. “There is so much implication (in accreditation status). It’s a real challenge how you treat Kansas City and St. Louis similarly.”

Regardless of how the accreditation issue plays out, the study of the Kansas City school district will carry on, said Ethan Gray, the executive director of CEE-Trust.

The study is reviewing historical data now and will begin interviewing stakeholders in the district in the next few weeks, he said. They remain on a schedule to produce a draft recommendation in January.

The study will be unique to Kansas City’s and Missouri’s situations, Gray said, but CEE-Trust will be drawing on much of the same background research on best practices that informed its 2011 report on Indianapolis Public Schools.

The study made many recommendations, including decentralizing the system and placing more resources and authority at the individual school level. It created performance criteria for schools to earn designation as an “opportunity school.” Families could choose their schools within the district.

The report recommended early childhood programming, more teacher autonomy in the classroom and merit pay structures.

It also recommended mayoral control, but Gray said he would not expect such a recommendation for Kansas City.

The Indianapolis proposal is still under debate. A new board and new superintendent have taken over since it was released and have renewed the discussion, Gray said.

The fact that the state has commissioned the Kansas City study and holds “the governance trigger” increases the chances that reforms might ultimately be implemented here, Gray said.

The Kauffman Foundation stepped in as a funder at the invitation of the state, said Aaron North, the foundation’s acting director of education.

“We have no preconceived notion or ideas of what will come out of this,” he said. “It’s about outcomes. We support the state in finding ways to improve outcomes. It’s relevant work. It’s important work.”

Meanwhile, in Kansas City classrooms, teachers and students carry on with their work.

The administration has been arguing its case for provisional status to the commissioner, the state board and the community, asserting that the district has earned it with two years of growth and stability.

The district has added its concern that the transfer law situation would imperil its ability to continue its improvement, but Superintendent Steve Green would be knocking on the state’s door now with or without the transfer concern.

Every day the district has to explain its unaccredited status to potential new families or teachers makes continued recovery that much harder, he said.

“We’ve delivered a strong case,” Green said. “We’ve laid out a game plan specific down to every individual student. We’re no-nonsense in contracts and business. No cronyism. No nepotism. No quid pro quo. I know there are concerns wondering if we’ll be able to sustain it. We will. Even as the bar goes higher.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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