Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens wants more charter schools in the state, so much so that he kicked off a political brawl trying to replace the head of the state board of education with a charter schools supporter.
While charter school advocates agree there could be more charters, some people working in the Kansas City Public School District schools say the district already has too many.
“Opening more charter schools in this city is crazy,” said Anthony Madry, principal of the district’s Central Academy of Excellence high school. “Students are already spread too thin across the district.”
Because charters have no enrollment boundaries and have attracted so many students, Madry says, they’re choking the life out of the district schools.
“It’s a numbers game. Our students are the ones who lose,” said Madry, who was struck by the severity of the problem in 2016 when Central’s call to field a football team drew 15 players.
“You don’t even have enough kids to scrimmage with each other,” Madry recalls telling the coach. “There is a problem. A huge problem.”
Twenty-two charter schools, which are public schools with independent governing boards, now operate inside KCPS district boundaries. The newest opened for the 2016- 2017 school year.
Counting district and charter schools, the Kansas City public school landscape is jam-packed with 82 public elementary, middle and high schools in an area populated with about 26,000 school-age children.
More than 40 percent of the public school students living in the KCPS district boundaries — nearly 12,000 — are enrolled in charter schools. The district has barely more than that, about 14,300 students.
National charter school experts say Kansas City has one of the highest percentages of charter market share in the country.
In St. Louis a little more than a third of the city’s 32,733 public school children attend charters; 21,754 students attend district schools.
Missouri law allows charters only within the boundaries of the Kansas City and St. Louis public school districts and in unaccredited school districts.
Cities like Springfield, Mo., don’t contend or compete with charter schools. In that city’s district, 25,000 children are divided among 53 schools — 37 elementary schools, 11 middle schools and five high schools.
High schools in the Kansas City district average 643 students, while charter high schools average 238.
But having too few students isn’t always a problem for charter schools, which are typically small. They market their concentration on academics and let parents know that if students want sports, music or big drama programs they have to make a different choice.
Then there’s University Academy a charter with 230 high schoolers and 83 percent of them participating in football, volley ball, boys and girls baseball, basketball, cross country and track.
“You can be small and mighty,” said Tony Kline, superintendent at University one of the top academic performing schools in Kansas City.
Advocates for charters say there’s room for more charters in strategically picked communities in the Kansas City district.
“When we talk about saturation and whether we are saturated in Kansas City,” said Doug Thaman, head of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, “we have reached a point were we need to be more strategic around placement of schools. We need to look as a community at where are there neighborhoods in Kansas City where there are no quality performing schools.”
Thaman says, “competition can be a healthy thing.” The key, he said, is that schools that provide comprehensive educational experiences where student achievement is high should survive. Others, charters or district schools, should be closed.
Phyllis Chase, who leads the University of Missouri-Kansas City Charter School Center, sides with charter school operators.
UMKC sponsors nine charters in the city. Chase said that if charters challenge district schools to improve their academics, that just means “more high quality schools” in the city.
She believes more quality schools will bring back families that have left for suburban districts and families that have thought about leaving will stay.
That, she said, could help level out the problem of too many schools and not enough students.
Lack of students means fewer programs
While Madry and others have come down hard against more charter schools, Kansas City district Superintendent Mark Bedell emphasizes that he’s not anti-charters. After all, the district sponsors a charter.
His objections are more cooled. He wants to see charters and the district collaborate on some services — transportation and maybe food service. Just this week district school board members approved guidelines for how KCPS will collaborate. Bedell wants charters and district schools to work together, not at odds.
But like Madry, he believes the war with charters has kids caught in the middle.
At the Central Academy in the Kansas City district, senior Davionne Cannon was looking to theater education.
But with only 500 students, the state money that follows each student isn’t enough for an all-out theater program. And even if it had one, there might not be enough students to fill casts, manage sets and put together big productions.
Cannon, 19, has wanted to act since he was in elementary school and got his first taste portraying the father in the Gladstone Elementary School production of “A Christmas Carol.”
In the four years that he has attended Central he’s been Homecoming king twice, student body president, played football, baseball, ran track and was stunt man for the basketball cheerleaders.
But he’s never been in a high school theater production. At Central, there are just a few classes that might present small opportunities for students to test their acting chops.
Cannon had thought about going to Paseo Performing Arts Academy to get theater experience, but that school doesn’t provide child daycare and Cannon has a child enrolled in the child care program at Central.
He still wants to pursue the entertainment world in college but since he missed out on getting stage experience, he’ll shift gears to study the business of theater instead.
Madry said that the main damage charters cause is in high schools, where students are missing out on a “full, and rich experience” because low enrollment has resulted in limited resources.
Central Students who want that full high school experience often move out of the city into suburban districts, Madry said. And that just exacerbates the problem.
At the end of the day, Madry said, “we need 650 to 700 students to have some extra, viable programs. You can’t offer all that when you don’t have the staff. You have to pay the staff.”
A student brings nearly $11,000 in state and local dollars to whatever school they attend. With more students more money is available to cover the cost of extracurricular programs.
In a lot of cases those are the kinds of extra programs that bring some students through the schoolhouse doors every day.
A history of incursion
With the nation’s lead educator, Betsy DeVos, touting more school choice and pushing charter school expansion, last summer Greitens began courting a Georgia educator and charter expansion advocate to become Missouri’s next commissioner of education.
Kansas City District School leaders have quietly worried about the growing number of charters for years.
Charter schools began moving into Missouri nearly two decades ago and district enrollment began to decline.
In 2000, about 34,500 students attended district schools. That same year, 10 charter schools began operating within district boundaries.
A decade later enrollment had plummeted to less than half of what it was in 2000 and eventually district leaders shuttered nearly 30 district schools.
Over the last four years enrollment has been up and down slightly, hovering around 14,300.
Some areas of the city have a higher concentration of charters than others, according to KCPS officials. Clumps are located west of 71 Highway. Most have been on the city’s southwest and northwest sides.
Eight charter high schools are inside district boundaries. Six are east of Troost. The district has six high schools. So 14 high schools serve 5,760 students.
More charters, new competition
In Kansas City, two new proposed charters to open in the fall 2019— all girls high school and an all boys high school — will add fuel to the charter school debate.
Monarch Collegiate Preparatory Academy plans to enroll 480 boys in kindergarten through fifth grade. According to the school’s charter application, it expects to draw students from the northwest part of the district.
The Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy wants to open with 100 fifth grade students and eventually serve 744 girls through high school. It expects to pull its students from the northeastern section of the district.
Phyllis Washington, superintendent of Allen Village charter, which opened in 1999 and now serves 600 students from kindergarten through high school, has a prediction:
In two or three years, she said, some of these schools are just not going to be able to meet their budgets.
“We are all going to be in trouble if we don’t stop fighting over the kids.”
As it faces more charters, the Kansas City district will have to continue trying to shed a long-borne reputation as a collection of failing schools. While the district is still only provisionally accredited, in the state’s annual school improvement review last year it came close to showing real change, scoring in the full accreditation level.
Bedell is certain he can build on the improvement already attained by aligning curriculum and data with state standards and holding staff and teachers accountable. But it’s going to take maybe two or three more years.
He knows that the district’s past academic performance fueled the growth of charter schools.
But state-issued annual performance reports show that’s not true for all of them. Last year six of the city’s charters scored below Kansas City Public Schools on the annual assessment. That still means 14 out scored district schools. The two newest schools are not counted.
Charter and district leaders note that it is difficult to compare an individual charter’s annual performance score with the overall score of an entire district. Several individual district schools have scored very well.
In 2017 Lincoln Academy of Excellence, which the previous year had landed a 100 percent APR score, was among the schools across the state not counted because of technical error tallying responses for some subjects.
But Hale Cook elementary did obtain a perfect score. Fourteen of 25 tested district schools scored above the 70 percent accreditation threshold. Ten, nearly half, of the city’s charters scored at that level.
The law requires that if a charter school’s annual performance score drops below district school scores in three out of four years, that charter can be closed down.
“But what happens when district schools are not performing?” asks charter advocate Chase. Closing them, she said, might ease the stretch of students between district and charters.
“I think there are a lot of tough decisions that need to be made in Kansas City as we move forward and look at enrollment at both charters and district schools.”