Missouri school chief Chris Nicastro: KC schools recommendation about integrity

09/26/2013 6:13 PM

09/28/2013 5:21 PM

As word was flying around Kansas City that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would not recommend provisional accreditation for the Kansas City School District this year, education Secretary Chris Nicastro defended her decision in a telephone interview.

“It doesn’t do any good to have an accountability system if you compromise its integrity,” she said.

She’s right about that. The Kansas City Public Schools district has veered between provisional and unaccredited status for 20 years. It has never been fully accredited under the state’s modern standards. A new statute, which legislators from this area had sought, allowed the state to intervene without an extended waiting period to make dramatic changes to unaccredited school districts.

That sounds as though that’s where Nicastro is headed.

“We’ve got to figure out something different,” she said. “I don’t know how you fix what’s there when you’ve had decades and decades of failure.”

The district has become calmer and made progress in some areas under the leadership of Superintendent Steve Green. But, as Nicastro pointed out in

a letter

to Green, the academic performance of students is unacceptable. Only about 30 percent of students are scoring at the proficient level or higher in all four academic subject areas.

Nothing has been decided about the future of Kansas City Public Schools, but obviously Nicastro has been thinking about it. Charter schools could be part of the answer, she said, although she noted that many of Kansas City’s charters are also struggling with performance.

Another idea Nicastro mentioned, which I find intriguing, is enlisting some of the successful outlying districts and their leaders to take a role in the management of schools now within the Kansas City Public Schools. Districts like Grandview, Independence and Center are doing an excellent job of educating students who share many of the same demographics as the Kansas City schools.

I’ve been writing for years that the Kansas City Public Schools needs a fundamental change in governance. But the big stumbling block now is a state law and court decisions interpreting it that require unaccredited school districts to pay for students to transfer into nearby accredited districts.

That policy is wreaking havoc in the St. Louis area. About 2,500 students have left two unaccredited districts for other schools. Both the unaccredited districts, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, are looking at bankruptcy. Some students are traveling as far as 30 miles each way to their new schools.

Kansas City has avoided the transfer debacle so far because of a court case. But that is expected to be decided soon, and not in the Kansas City Public Schools’ favor. Compared with the chaos that will befall the Kansas City and outlying school districts if transfers begin, provisional accreditation seemed like a better alternative, even though it would be jumping the gun on the process.

There is a way out of this jam, but it would require the Missouri legislature to get its act together and change the statute allowing the wide-open transfer policy.

“I think that the transfer program as it’s currently conceived is not sustainable,” Nicastro said. “It bankrupts sending school districts and frankly it gives receiving districts more than they should get.”

Transfers out of the Kansas City Public Schools probably wouldn’t begin until next September, Nicastro said. That gives the legislature an entire session to rewrite the statute. Lawmakers should have done this years ago, but education bills inevitably get bogged down with ideological agendas and nothing gets done. Maybe now that a crisis is at hand the legislature will act.

Whatever happens, it looks like big changes are in the wind for the Kansas City Public Schools.

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