In recent Star guest commentaries, Kansas City School Board member Jennifer Wolfsie and University Academy charter school chairman Bush Helzberg made different cases for what they think is wrong with Kansas City’s schools.
And they’re both right.
Our public education system is increasingly fragmented. Once upon a time, we had one public school operator within the district’s boundaries. Today we have Kansas City Public Schools plus 22 public charter schools.
Charters are public schools that operate independently of traditional school districts. They did not appear out of thin air. Rather, the passage of 1998 state charter legislation came on the heels of a failed $2 billion investment to reverse the declining fortunes of the district under a court-ordered desegregation plan. Given the scope of that failure, it seems reasonable that legislators would seek a new approach.
As Helzberg points out, the fragmentation resulting from charter school growth has been essential in introducing competition, parent choice and innovation into a perpetually-struggling public schools sector in Kansas City. Today, some of the highest-performing public schools in our district are charter schools. But so are some of the lowest.
One way or the other, charter schools now constitute a major part of our public education landscape. This year, 46 percent of all K-12 students attended charter schools. For the first time, there are more kindergarten students in charters than district schools. While black students have left the district at a significant rate over the last decade, black enrollment in charters has grown. And overall public school enrollment has grown for the last four years, driven by charter sector growth.
When the families of more than 12,000 public school students opt out of our traditional public schools in favor of independently-run public charters, it’s telling us something important about what families want and need from our public schools. We need to listen.
But while fragmentation has benefits, it also has costs. I agree with Wolfsie that the path we’re on is unsustainable: The number of schools within district boundaries would grow unchecked. New charters would continue to open while low-performing schools — both district and charter — operate indefinitely with little threat of sanction or closure.
As the number of choices grows, the system becomes increasingly difficult for parents who lack time, information and transportation to navigate it effectively, resulting in too many students in low-performing schools. And finite public dollars are spread across a growing number of schools — ultimately to the detriment of the schools and students who need our help the most.
The million-dollar question: How do we get on a more equitable, coherent and higher-quality path? There’s no one answer or solution. But I’m encouraged by the district school board’s recently stated commitment to partnerships, and to working with other school operators and community organizations to ensure quality across our education landscape.
School districts around the country — from Camden, N.J., to Atlanta to San Antonio — are increasingly pursuing innovative partnerships to forge a middle path, or third way, between an all-district and all-charter system. It’s a path that takes advantage of the strengths of a centrally-coordinated system while capitalizing on the flexibility and autonomy of the charter school model.
When coupled with an increased focus on accountability for all public schools, this middle path has the potential to change the trajectory of public education in our school district.
We need a diverse community of quality public schools for a diverse Kansas City community. Partnerships — when driven by shared goals and vision, and a recognition that both parties have something of value to contribute to their success — are a win-win that can help us move toward building a system of schools that serve all Kansas City students well.
Rebecca Haessig is a Kansas City charter school parent and author of the blog Set the Schools Free. She has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.