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CEE-Trust presents its proposal to remake Kansas City’s public schools

Updated: 2014-01-14T02:28:40Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

— A state consultant on Monday unveiled its vision of a Kansas City public school system where independent schools, as long as they excelled, would control their classrooms and their money.

CEE-Trust, an Indianapolis-based think tank, was charged with completely reinventing the role the state plays in helping unaccredited school districts.

What CEE-Trust presented to the Missouri State Board of Education is not a charter school system, but a centrally controlled system that recruits strong programs to run schools their own ways, said Ethan Gray, CEE-Trust’s chief executive officer.

Each school that earns independence within the system would have its own board and gain control of most of its funding to choose its leadership, staff and curriculum.

Schools could be run by successful charter school programs, nonprofit education agencies and foundations, neighboring school districts or community organizations arising from already-successful district schools and principals.

Ideally, the system would generate successful schools in every neighborhood, while giving families freedom to choose among schools throughout the system.

“The system’s No. 1 role is to ensure schools are held accountable, but give schools wide latitude in how to meet those needs,” Gray said about the plan.

Board members sounded both intrigued and daunted by the idea of such a remaking of a school system.

“Where have we seen this done?” board member Russell Still asked, wondering aloud where the state would gather needed talent and resources.

“You hired us because it hasn’t been done,” Gray said.

Getting there won’t be easy — not just because of the difficulty of remaking a public school system, but because of the controversy and politics that have preceded the plan’s arrival.

State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has been struggling with a divided Kansas City community over what to do with its long-troubled school system since the state board first determined in October 2011 that the district would become unaccredited in 2012.

The CEE-Trust plan is not the only proposal that the state board will hear, “and we are still open to new ideas,” Nicastro said.

But emails and other records reported by The Star in early December showed that Nicastro, CEE-Trust and two private foundations that funded CEE-Trust’s work — the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations — had been making plans since April.

The records showed that, once the state board directed the department in June to put the contract for a study up for bid, the department carried out a bid process favorable to CEE-Trust.

Some groups, including the NAACP, the school district’s parent and community advisory committee and MORE2, an interfaith social justice organization, have protested that the study should be stopped. Some Democratic lawmakers have called for Nicastro’s resignation.

Opponents rallied outside before the start of Monday’s state school board meeting. The overall turnout swelled to more than 100 people, leading the board to move the meeting to a larger room across the street.

Monday’s meeting was just for the board to hear the plan. The board is not expected to vote on any proposal until March at the earliest.

As controversy over the CEE-Trust plan grew, Gray said he wanted the chance to get CEE-Trust’s ideas out and let the debate turn on what to do about failing urban schools.

He got his wish Monday.

Watching closely were leaders, staff and supporters of Kansas City Public Schools, which still hopes to gain provisional accreditation and avoid coming under state control.

The district sued the state in mid-December in a case that is pending, claiming it made enough improvement under the state’s accountability system to earn provisional status.

It is seeking an injunction to be declared provisional while the case is pending to shield the district from a state law that could allow students to transfer to neighboring districts at Kansas City’s expense — potentially bankrupting the district.

It also is asking for the injunction to be shielded from any potential disruption by the CEE-Trust plan.

The district will have the chance, without the lawsuit, to escape any takeover plan the state chooses. If Kansas City continues to show enough improvement to repeat a provisional score on the state’s district report card in August, Nicastro said she would recommend provisional status to the state board.

If the district slips in its performance, and if CEE-Trust’s proposal were put into action, the transition to a new district could begin this fall.

How plan would work

Under the CEE-Trust plan, the operation of the schools would change little at first, but a full-scale recruiting process would begin in earnest to bring in top leadership and new school operators.

The district would come under the control of a Community School Office, with an executive director selected by the education commissioner, and an advisory board chosen by the state school board — replacing the current administration and elected school board.

The state, with the executive director, would create a Transition Authority that would take over management of the district’s schools. The Community School Office would begin handing schools over to independent operators that meet its criteria, and establish binding performance agreements.

The Transition Authority would continue to manage district schools that lack new operators, or take back schools where operators fail to meet their performance agreements.

CEE-Trust’s plan is similar to another proposal it made for Indianapolis schools in 2011, in which it called for giving autonomy to “opportunity schools” that demonstrated success.

That plan, however, has not been put into action because it needed the approval of the district’s school board, which divided over it.

The Kansas City plan, however, would have what Gray previously called a “state trigger.” If whatever arises at the end of a public input period is approved by the state board, state law gives the education department the authority to act.

The proposal strives for middle ground in some of education’s most volatile conflicts.

The plan caters to charter schools — public schools that operate independently of school districts. But they would not be charter schools. They would be accountable to the district’s Community School Office.

Funding would flow through the district, and the school operators would maintain high degrees of independence only as long as they met their performance agreements.

The central office would own and maintain the buildings, operate bus services for all the schools and coordinate a lottery-based enrollment process with a standard expulsion policy.

Gray said the plan is not “anti-labor” because each independent school board could decide to enter into collective bargaining agreements with its teachers.

The plan, though, would dismantle the Kansas City Federation of Teachers that currently represents teachers and other staff positions districtwide. Many of the new schools likely would not be unionized.

Right now, Kansas City Public Schools pays one of the lower average teacher salaries in the region, Gray said, and he thinks the shift in how funds are administered in CEE-Trust’s proposal would give schools opportunities to pay more.

CEE-Trust’s research asserts that principals currently control what happens with about 5 percent of a school’s funding, or about $796 annually per pupil. The proposal estimates its changes would put $10,003 of the per-pupil funding “into the hands of educators to make decisions in the best interests of their students.”

The elimination of many central office costs, Gray said, could free $28 million to support a universal pre-kindergarten program desired by the district and the community.

The CEE-Trust plan would be a gamble.

It depends on the state’s ability to put highly effective leadership in place to carry out its audacious plan, and the leadership’s ability to entice top school programs to come under its umbrella. And the independent schools will need to attract strong teaching staffs.

“That’s a huge learning curve,” board member O. Victor Lenz said.

Doug Thaman, the executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, was impressed by the plan.

For some successful charter school operators, joining such a system “might be appealing,” he said. “Independence and autonomy are what we believe are important.”

While some charters in Kansas City have succeeded, many have not.

Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, thinks decentralization of the system could put too many schools off a focus on instruction.

State board member Michael Jones said CEE-Trust’s plan would be “taking a chance on a different paradigm.”

“It would be radically reforming the system — that seems to have the real potential of an upside,” he said.

Once launched, the plan makes no provision for turning back. Even if the district succeeds and is returned to the control of an elected school board, the plan requires the board to continue the Community School Office structure.

District parent leader Jamekia Kendrix, who drove to Jefferson City to see the presentation, said she fears that many schools might struggle and that the system would lead to turnover of neighborhood schools.

“They come up with experiments and push them down on people who have to live in this,” Kendrix said.

The success of whatever plan the state chooses will depend on leadership, state board President Peter Herschend said.

“Without the right person (in the executive director position) or at the principal level, it will fail,” Herschend said.

He said the state “will change how we look at education, or we will move through the same systems and make them work.”

“What we have done in the past has not worked. ... However this board acts has to make a difference for kids.”

Public discussion

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will hold a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Paseo Academy, 4747 Flora Ave., to discuss the CEE-Trust plan and other proposals.

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

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