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Missouri school board starts discussing fate of children in unaccredited districts

Updated: 2014-02-11T00:20:07Z


The Kansas City Star

— The state’s still-evolving plan for the Kansas City Public Schools got some direction from state school board members Monday.

The seven-member panel is not inclined to turn the state’s poor-performing schools over to a statewide special school district or to a state-appointed community schools office.

Several board members said they would prefer to work with the locally elected school board in Kansas City and other unaccredited districts in pursuit of swift change for failing schools.

The board seemed to turn away from some of the key elements of the state-commissioned plan created by CEE-Trust, an Indianapolis-based educational consultant. But board members want the time line for improvement to be swift and for consequences to “have teeth.”

Those and many other details, debated in a six-hour workshop Monday, now need to be hammered into a plan for how the state should intervene in unaccredited school districts.

The board hopes the education department can bring a proposal to the board’s next meeting on Feb. 18.

The hard question was left to some interpretation by the department: “What if?” Deputy Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven asked the board. If the unaccredited school district can’t turn around its weak schools, “how does the state intervene?”

Board member Charlie Shields said he could see the unaccredited district being compelled to offer choices — either by contracting with neighboring districts to operate schools or by sponsoring charter schools in the district.

One concern the state board could not address was the extra pressure of a transfer law.

The board needs to be focused on holding districts accountable to improving performance, said board Vice President Mike Jones. It should not compromise its standards because of a problem with a law that the legislature has failed to address for several years.

“The responsibility for fixing that is across the street at the state legislature,” he said.

The transfer law allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to neighboring districts, with costs for tuition and transfer paid by the unaccredited districts.

In many ways, said Mark Van Zandt, the education department’s general counsel, the state’s wish to find a “nuanced” plan for failing schools is trumped by the immediate concerns of the transfer law.

The Missouri School Boards Association on Monday announced that many districts and organizations are pitching an idea that unaccredited districts would be willing to enter into a performance agreement with the state school board. While the districts are under that agreement, the state would classify them as provisionally accredited, freeing the districts and their neighboring districts from the transfer law.

The law threatens to come into play in Kansas City ahead of the 2014-15 school year and is already in effect in the St. Louis area, where the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts are in danger of bankruptcy.

The state board has enough on its plate, board members said, recognizing the “traps” awaiting them in every direction as they hope to agree on a policy for helping failing schools.

The board members worried about how to give choice to families in poor schools, without sacrificing the children who stay behind. They worried about labels and the potential “leper colony” image around the idea of a special state-run district for failed schools.

There were concerns about the idea of giving failed schools over to nonprofit entities. And they worried about the capacity statewide and in communities to gather the immense talent needed to pull off the steep missions in several reform ideas on the table.

The state must contemplate the pressure of the transfer situation, board President Peter Herschend said, but not let it cripple the long-term mission of fixing the plight of 62,000 children in districts that are unaccredited or provisionally accredited.

The work ahead has to find a way that “we can say we changed that number,” he said. “We helped the 62,000 children who are being cheated in their lives.”

The education department is contemplating ideas picked from several proposals on how the state should intervene. The presentation did not mention any of the plans by name but scattered their different ideas under headings that included governance, finance, accountability, community and parent involvement, and teacher quality.

Foremost is the plan that the department commissioned from CEE-Trust, which proposes the most sweeping changes. It would replace the current board and administrative structure with a community schools office that would oversee a network of independent schools with their own school boards. The schools would have autonomy to choose staff, curriculum and programming as long as they meet performance agreements.

The community schools office would have a chief executive appointed by the education commissioner, and an advisory board appointed by the state school board.

Several area school district superintendents and their state association proposed a plan that emphasizes more collaboration between the state and districts that are struggling. Schools that continue to perform at an unaccredited level would come under a state achievement district.

Kansas City Public Schools also submitted a plan, drawing the same accountability structure as the superintendents’ plan and outlining more intense programming to help students and their families inside and outside of school.

Other plans in the mix have come from the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association and the Kansas City-based Metropolitan Organization for Racial and Economic Equality.

The Kansas City chapter of the NAACP added its proposal to the mix Monday, calling for the state board to protect transfer rights but giving Kansas City another year to see whether its improvement plan continues to show progress. The NAACP plan, like the superintendents’ plan, urges that accreditation and intervention be applied school by school and not districtwide.

The state board members said they would be inclined to support a school-by-school accountability system.

The plan the department ultimately proposes could be any combination of the ideas on the table. And the board members think the plan should be flexible, adapting to the needs of each unaccredited district and its individual schools.

Kansas City has been unaccredited since January 2012 but has been improving its state report card score the past two years. It scored in the provisionally accredited range in August 2013 and asked the state to grant it provisional status.

But the state determined the district needed to hit the mark for at least two years.

Kansas City sued the state, seeking a designation of provisional accreditation. The case is pending.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to

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