January 30, 2012

Senator’s bill would bring an end to KC school district

If Jane Cunningham gets her way, the class of 2013 would be the last to graduate from the Kansas City Public Schools district.

If Jane Cunningham gets her way, the class of 2013 would be the last to graduate from the Kansas City Public Schools district.

The Republican state senator from Chesterfield is pushing legislation that, among other things, would permanently dissolve the unaccredited school district, carve it up and require neighboring districts to take over city schools.

“For decades we’ve watched as (the Kansas City) district has gone down and down and down,” Cunningham said. “The district has not served its students or the community, so a dramatic change is needed.”

A public hearing on the bill, one of many introduced this session addressing the troubled district and other education issues, is scheduled for 3 p.m. today in the Capitol.

Critics of the plan argue it would deny local residents a say in the future of their school district and could do more harm than good.

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has dismissed the idea, saying at a public meeting last month that the challenges associated with educating the urban core — poverty and other socio-economic factors — “will not be addressed simply by dispersing the children.”

Complicating matters further is the inclusion of other measures in the bill that have proven controversial. Perhaps the biggest would be the creation of a tax-credit supported scholarship program for students in unaccredited districts to attend private and parochial schools.

Kansas City lost its accreditation effective Jan. 1 for failing to reach state performance standards.

Under Cunningham’s proposal, annexation of a district by its neighbors would occur within six months of a district becoming unaccredited or by July 1, whichever occurs later.

That time frame means that even if the bill passes quickly and is signed by the governor, it’s unlikely to impact Kansas City before the next school year, Cunningham said.

The bill gives the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the authority to intervene in the district immediately instead of the current law, which mandates a two-year waiting period after a district is ruled unaccredited.

“I wish we could move faster in Kansas City, but we won’t just be twiddling our thumbs,” Cunningham said. “The state can move in, and if the suburban Kansas City superintendents want to move faster, we may be able to accommodate that as well.”

The main goal of any education bill should be to get students into an accredited district as quickly as possible, Cunningham added. This plan does that, and without uprooting students and transporting them out of their neighborhoods, she noted.

Under the plan, accredited districts would not be required to include the statewide assessment scores of any students it receives from an unaccredited district for up to five years, although they could opt to include them earlier.

The bill joins a host of other pending education bills. They include an expansion of charter schools; allowing the state Department of Education to immediately intervene in unaccredited schools; phasing out teacher tenure over 20 to 30 years; and turning control of Kansas City Public Schools over to the mayor.

Independence Public School District Superintendent Jim Hinson said that he had not had the chance to study Cunningham’s bill, which he said emerged from discussions among suburban Kansas City superintendents.

However, they envisioned the boundary changes would be temporary, with control eventually returning to a new Kansas City district sometime in the future, unless voters chose otherwise.

“The question was, if lawmakers came up with some sort of management concept, would the superintendents be interested in being a part of the discussion to make it work? The answer is yes,” Hinson said.

Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, an Independence Democrat, said his main complaint with Cunningham’s bill is that it changes district boundary lines without allowing voters to weigh in.

Under current law, a local referendum must be held before any district lines can change.

In 2007, a plan to allow the annexation of a portion of Kansas City schools into Independence was approved by voters in both districts. Callahan said a major component of that success was the fact that taxpayers got to have their voices heard on the matter.

House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat, agreed with Callahan that moving forward without giving taxpayers a chance to vote would be a mistake.

“Just killing the district outright is a bad idea,” he said.

Nicastro said in December that it would be “hard to imagine a viable metropolitan community without a school district.” While neighboring districts deserve credit for acknowledging they have a stake in the future success of Kansas City Public Schools, “the political and social fallout that this approach will bring can only serve to further disrupt the educational program for children.”

In the end, however, it could be Cunningham’s proposal to create tax credit-supported scholarships to allow parents to send their children to private schools that proves to be the toughest sell to lawmakers.

Cunningham’s bill would allow accredited districts to set criteria for admitting transfers from unaccredited districts, such as the availability of teachers and classroom space, in order to stem the potential flow of transfers from their unaccredited neighbors.

But lawmakers can’t limit the number of students that can transfer “without giving parents options,” Cunningham argued. “And there is nowhere to go but to the private sector, which has said it would welcome these students.”

Under Cunningham’s proposal, anyone who contributes to an organization providing scholarships to attend private schools would receive a 60-cent tax credit for each dollar donated.

Legislative efforts to steer any public resources to private or parochial schools have failed numerous times over the years and have faced fierce opposition from those who believe such a move would be unconstitutional.

Talboy said he doesn’t expect the idea to gain much traction.

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