KC lawmakers, educators hope to break out of divisive reform issues

Inevitably, Kansas City teachers and principals turn to anxious talk of a state takeover.

It’s an understandable phenomenon when the state’s regional education supervisor is in the room.

After all, the coming legislative session in Jefferson City ensures another battle for education reform. And chances are stronger that lawmakers will give the state the ability to take control of Kansas City’s unaccredited school district.

“Talk of legislation comes up and it’s a real downer,” said Tony Stansberry, the regional supervisor, who has been meeting with district staff as the state works with the district on its turnaround plan.

“They want to know what happens to everybody.”

The answer Stansberry describes is a call to action.

Some lawmakers and education leaders across the state are sounding the same tone — hoping to break out of the divisive reform issues of the past and rally behind a push for early childhood education that would deliver all children ready for kindergarten.

“It doesn’t matter who’s governing the district,” Stansberry said he tells the Kansas City staff. “Let politics be politics. The kids are still there. The teachers still have to train themselves up and meet kids’ needs.”

At the statewide level, several lawmakers say they are weary of fighting over issues such as open enrollment, teacher performance evaluations, tenure and tax credits or vouchers for private school tuition.

“We’re always on defense trying to stop other reforms,” said newly elected state Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.

“Now’s the time to invest in a positive way that yields results.”

He was talking about early childhood education, including nursing support for new parents, strengthening the state’s Parents as Teachers program and providing funding for districts to offer preschool.

“That’s what’s going to solve the problem,” he said. “Not who’s in charge.”

House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican who will make committee assignments, thinks some of the more difficult reform ideas can still take hold.

“I feel like we made progress on the issue of the tenure system and teacher accountability,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re going to be focused on this year.”

Retired multimillionaire investor Rex Sinquefield has vowed to push for an election in 2014 to abolish teacher tenure if the legislature is unable to act.

The dynamics around the support for such reforms and the atmosphere around the Kansas City Public Schools have a chance to play out much differently than the stalemate that bogged down the 2012 legislative session, lawmakers say.

A year ago at this time, school leaders in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas were in crisis mode.

Kansas City, about to become unaccredited, seemed in disarray.

Confusion over a state law that allowed children to transfer from unaccredited districts to neighboring districts had all the affected districts scrambling for legal protection.

Lawmakers hoping to leverage their reform measures attached them to legislation aimed at fixing the crises in Kansas City and St. Louis — and almost all of them failed.

The marooned bills included one, endorsed by Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, that would have given the state the discretion to take control of Kansas City Public Schools — or any unaccredited district — immediately.

Right now, state law gives Kansas City two full school years, or until June 30, 2014, to regain accredited status before the state could take control.

The law very well may be changed this time around.

Some of the lawmakers who had forced other issues onto the legislation did not return this year. And the proposal to remove the two-year restriction on state intervention still has broad support.

State Sen. David Pearce, the likely chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has pre-filed Senate Bill 7 to put state intervention in Kansas City back in play.

Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican, acknowledges that Kansas City may well be making strides forward, and that the continuity of leadership of Superintendent Steve Green has helped.

“But the district is still unaccredited,” Pearce said. And the proposed law does not mandate state intervention. It opens up the opportunity and establishes a community-based process to guide the state school board’s decision on what intervention, if any, is necessary.

The state would first decide whether it wants to continue working with the elected board or appoint a new one.

Newly elected Missouri Board of Education President Stan Archie said he would expect a deep community process — “more than just a couple of town hall-style meetings.”

He wants the legislature to take action so the state “can reconsider the governance model (and) act in ways to support the district.”

The reality, which Stansberry impresses on the school staffs, is that whatever changes might come from the law would mostly occur above the level of the classrooms.

The state is already intensely involved with the district, collaborating on school improvement teams, curriculum revision and monthly public reports on their progress.

Those reports, Stansberry said, have been mostly positive, and Green agrees.

“The indicators are we’ve healed a great deal,” Green said. “We’ve demonstrated a kind of resilience to withstand a storm like the one we’ve come through.”

The work of the teachers, despite the distractions, goes on, he said.

Kansas City school board President Airick Leonard West wants the district to have the chance to carry through its turnaround work.

The elected board is “stable and professionally behaving,” he said.

The district recently received its first completely clean financial audit in decades.

And student performance is showing improvement — though the real evidence will come when the next round of state test scores is returned in July.

If lawmakers want to help, he said, “the No. 1 thing they can do is fully fund (the education funding formula) and allow pre-kindergarten to be a part of that.”

The biggest obstacle for early childhood programming is, of course, funding. And lawmakers marshalling the effort know it.

“Some people look at me and laugh, ‘Yeah, that’s never going to happen,’ ” said state Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat.

Although “the governance of schools is an important issue,” she said, “I feel like we’re missing the boat. You’ve lost the kids and you’ve gained all the expenses, from social services to prison.”

The Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report.