KC public schools want to sponsor more charters, but they may have to fight for them

The Kansas City Public School District is looking to take a giant leap into the charter school business, but it has some big competition.

The school board this week voted to sponsor additional public charter schools in the city. How many?

“We don’t have a limit,” Superintendent Mark Bedell told The Star on Thursday. “This is something we have been working toward since I came here. I have never opposed school choice. What I want is accountability.“

But a state agency, created to monitor charters, says it has already laid claimed to those same schools.

Bedell said that sponsoring more charters could be “a win for the charters, a win for the district, a win for the students and a win for the city.”

The charters would have access to district amenities — athletic fields and extracurricular activities. And, Bedell said, the district and charters could save money by sharing some services.

The first and only charter school the district sponsored was Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, a pre-K to fourth grade school with a science and project-based learning foundation. It was established in 2016 through a partnership with the Urban Neighborhood Initiative.

Now there are at least six other charters operating within the district’s boundaries that need to choose a new sponsor by the spring. University of Missouri-Kansas City, which has sponsored public charter schools in Kansas City for nearly two decades, this month announced that as of May 31 it will officially relinquish its sponsorships to focus on education research.

UMKC currently sponsors eight charters: University Academy, Pathway Academy, Genesis School, Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy, Frontier Schools, Brookside Charter, Allen Village School and Academy for Integrated Arts. Two of those charters — University Academy and Integrated Arts — have already decided to contract with the Missouri Charter Public School Commission as a sponsor, bringing the number of Kansas City schools the commission sponsors to five.

In Missouri, charter schools are sponsored by education entities such as a public school district, college or university or the six-year-old charter school commission. In Kansas City, there are 22 charters sponsored by University of Missouri, University of Central Missouri, the commission and the Kansas City school district.

Sponsors do not set a curriculum or manage operations for charters, which are public but governed by independent boards. Sponsors provide oversight and accountability by evaluating a school’s academic and financial performance each year and making sure the charter school is in compliance with state law.

Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the charter school commission, said that is exactly what her agency was established by Missouri lawmakers in 2012 to do: sponsor charter schools. So when UMKC decided to step away from its charter schools, “the commission said it would sponsor all eight schools within the UMKC portfolio,” Wahby said.

Ultimately though, it will be up each charter’s school boards to decide which sponsor to settle with.

“We want the schools,” Wahby said. “And as far as we are concerned each of those schools in the UMKC portfolio has a sponsor. If they choose another sponsor that’s up to them. But this is our only focus. We are 100 percent committed to this. It is all we do, and I think that makes a difference.”

Wahby said she would advise charters that when choosing a sponsor to “look at past practice as a good predictor for the next performance.”

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, a charter advocacy group, said he was surprised to hear that the Kansas City school district was seeking to sponsor charters.

Historically in Kansas City, charter schools and the district have competed for a limited number of students to fill seats in their classrooms. Each has accused the other of some bad practices or not performing up to par.

In the meantime, the district, which is provisionally accredited by the state, has made great strides toward regaining full accreditation and in 2016 scored at the full-accreditation level on the state-issued report that measures progress in a number of performance areas, including how well students did on standardized tests.

Charters and district schools have performed relatively similarly when it comes to student academic scores, with some charters outperforming district schools and some district schools outperforming charters.

Bedell said the district has been negotiating with the six uncommitted charters and feels fairly certain they will reach a sponsorship agreement with some of them.

More charter-district collaboration, Bedell said, could help schools retain students through graduation.

And furthermore, he said, “we truly believe that the district has a lot to offer.” He said charters the district sponsors could enroll students in programs at the district’s Manual Career & Technical Center, participate in its ROTC programs and ride district buses when school schedules allow. The district already has a partnership with at least two charters that have students transported by the district and others taking classes and the career tech center.

“Sharing services would save money,” for the charters and the district, Bedell said. Plus, he said, he envisions charters and district schools sharing students and “increasing elective offerings because now we would have more students participating in them,” Bedell said.

Many public schools in Kansas City, “can’t offer electives,” Bedell said, because there are too few students enrolled in the school. About 27,000 students attend public schools in the Kansas City school district boundaries, and about half — 14,500 of them — attend district schools. The other half attend the 22 charter schools.

But Thaman says those services have nothing to do with sponsorship.

“They can do those things in a partnership,” said Thaman. “They don’t have to be a sponsor. The role of the sponsor is to provide oversight while respecting the autonomy of the charter. They have to be willing to do that. That is what the law says.”

Bedell says he is well aware of the role of a sponsor and the district is willing to establish a charter school division to concentrate on monitoring charters it sponsors.

“Our primary goal is to make sure that we are creating fair and equitable opportunities for all students that reside within our boundaries. “ Bedell said. “ The school system is simply saying take a look at the school system right here in your back yard. Think about ways we can partner, how we can help reduce inefficiencies. All I care about is trying to create something that benefits students, all students.”