Top Missouri education officials are scheduled to work this week on a plan that could shape the future of Kansas City Public Schools and other struggling districts.
Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has sought suggestions from the public and interested groups and, controversially, an Indianapolis-based firm that supports school choice. She hopes to recommend a plan to the Board of Education when it meets Feb. 18.
Nicastro and the board would make a serious mistake by adopting wholesale the dramatic changes recommended by CEE-Trust of Indianapolis, especially when better options exist.
While some of its prescriptions are on the mark universal pre-kindergarten, for example, and more decision-making authority at the school building level CEE-Trust proposes making Kansas City the site of a first-of-its-kind experiment.
It would dismantle the Kansas City Public Schools and replace it with a new entity that would select and support a system of independent nonprofit school operators. Those chosen to run schools would decide on curriculum, teacher pay, school year calendars and school culture. A community schools office would take care of central functions such as transportation.
The troubled history of Kansas Citys urban school district demands new thinking and more accountability. But the CEE-Trust plan is highly speculative. It relies on multiple as-yet-unknown entities to create and sustain great schools.
Kansas City has a strong nonprofit and foundation network. But does the community have the capacity to sustain enough excellent nonprofit boards to make sure these schools thrive and serve the interests of children and their families? Sustained board leadership has been a challenge for many charter schools in Kansas City.
We also question whether a collection of independently run schools, some of which would enroll students through a lottery, would appeal to families looking at Kansas City as a place to live. Strong neighborhood schools in a stable district seem a more reliable option.
The Kansas City Public Schools has for the most part also failed to provide that option. But while the districts overall performance is unacceptable, some schools perform well.
Most plans submitted to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recognize that dichotomy, and correctly propose that interventions take place at the building level as opposed to dismantling entire school systems.
A consortium of superintendents has recommended that failing schools be placed under the temporary control of an achievement district run by a state board. Schools and districts that fail to improve could eventually become part of a more successful district. Leaders of the Kansas City Public Schools have proposed something similar.
Neighboring school districts need to be a part of the solution. Districts such as Center, Grandview and Raytown have achieved impressive academic results with students who, like most of those in the Kansas City Public Schools, come from impoverished backgrounds.
Superintendents of those districts and others have expressed their willingness to help turn around failing schools in the Kansas City district, and even annex them if necessary. Given their track records and their understanding of the educational environment here, tapping their expertise looks like the quickest route to a turnaround.
Most families in Kansas City are weary of educational experiments. They want solid leadership in which they can place their confidence. The faster state leaders can facilitate that, the better.