As I See It

Kansas City Public Schools overhaul report earns an F

Updated: 2014-01-22T01:36:01Z

By BRUCE BAKER

Special to The Star

The recent report from CEE-Trust proposing dramatic reform of Kansas City Public Schools constructs an appealing story line about a failed large urban bureaucracy. Put simply, the report asserts that a) urban school districts don’t and can’t ever work; b) KCPS is an urban school district, therefore it can’t work; c) privately operated charter schools elsewhere in the country are achieving outstanding results; d) thus the logical solution is to replace the entire urban district with a loosely governed confederation of private nonprofit entities.

As evidence that Kansas City is a failed urban school district, the report points to low average test scores and state accountability status, absent any context about the district, its history or students served.

The district’s current woes are a long time in the making. Enrollment has continued to decline, and in recent years child poverty has risen. Over the past decade district spending has leveled off only slightly above the average among districts across the two-state metro area. But child poverty remains two to three times the average of surrounding districts.

As evidence that large scale “chartering” and private governance can solve the district’s woes, the report provides highly selective anecdotal information on supposed miracle-making charter schools in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere. But a closer look at any of these examples raises questions about their usefulness for informing Kansas City reform.

New York City charter schools are exceptionally endowed, many spending far more per pupil than New York’s district schools, offering smaller classes and serving fewer of the lowest income children, few children with disabilities and few with limited English language proficiency. North Star Academy in Newark, N.J., also serves few of the city’s neediest children. In addition, the school has a poor attrition rate and has among the highest suspension rates in Newark.

The CEE-Trust report sidesteps the decidedly mixed results of existing charter schools in Kansas City. Such mixed results are common elsewhere as well, including New York and Newark.

Drawing on the evidence of miracle-making nonprofit charters from elsewhere, the report proposes a complex public-private hybrid governance structure to replace the district. But the report fails to acknowledge the legal and governance concerns that accompany such a proposal. The shift from traditional public governance of schools to mixed public/private relationships may substantively alter the rights of students, employees and taxpayers, including students’ constitutional and statutory protections under school discipline policies. Taxpayers may find increasingly that documents and meetings previously considered publicly accessible are not.

While the authors of the CEE-Trust report so confidently conclude that the obvious solution is to replace the failed urban district with a loosely governed confederation of benevolent nonprofit contractors, one might easily conclude the opposite. There is little reason to believe that the proposed reforms would yield any positive effect on the usual outcomes measured.

Further, in a model where no true public provider exists, parents may be required to choose which rights they and their children must forgo (disclosure, discipline, etc.). These tradeoffs are unacceptable, especially when imposed disproportionately on the area’s neediest children.

Bruce Baker, formerly of the Kansas City area, is a professor in the Department of Education Theory Policy and Administration at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

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