The state is debating reform ideas for Kansas City Public Schools as a launching point to create new policy on how the state should intervene in unaccredited school districts. The conversation has been politically charged. The state school board is weighing the role of elected local school boards versus appointed boards. It’s weighing increased system support versus system overhaul. It is contemplating ideas proposed by teacher groups, community agencies, superintendents and school districts, as well as the most radical plan on the table from a consultant that was commissioned by the state. The pressure for action has intensified because of a state law that allows families in unaccredited districts to transfer to neighboring districts with the costs of tuition and transportation paid by the unaccredited districts. The state board did vote Tuesday to begin a transition process to take control of the unaccredited Normandy School District in the St. Louis area, which has been devastated by the troublesome transfer law. Some lawmakers and education officials had hoped the education department would consider a policy move to evade the transfer law. But Nicastro and the state board decided against it. The department is recommending keeping the current “unaccredited” classifications that trigger the transfer law, leaving the responsibility to address the law with the legislature. St. Louis area districts began applying the law in August with the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts. Kansas City area districts worry they will have to apply the law for the 2014-2015 school year, if Kansas City Public Schools remains unaccredited. Lawmakers have been debating potential fixes for the law — but tangling over how to ease the damage to unaccredited school systems while giving families options out of failing schools.
The new accountability system would mean little change for most districts in the state. Roughly eight out of 10 of the state’s more than 500 districts would be classified as high-performing and warrant only slight state monitoring. The plan proposes a Tier Two accreditation, in which a district is nearing a provisional status, or has been in two years of decline, at which time the state would conduct a more thorough review of the district’s operations. Performance plans come into place for districts that fall into the provisional range or unaccredited range, which currently would include about 3 percent of the state’s districts, serving 62,000 children. In the Kansas City area, Kansas City Public Schools is unaccredited, and the Hickman Mills School District is provisionally accredited. In considering the education department’s working plan, the state board picked up its conversation from a workshop Feb. 10 when it gave the department some feedback on the ideas laid out in the various proposals. Consensus was unclear, but at least some of the board members in the seven-member panel were leaning away from some of the dramatic ideas the state’s consultant — Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust — has proposed. CEE-Trust’s plan would eliminate the current board and administration in favor of a community schools office whose primary role would be recruiting independent, nonprofit groups or institutions to run schools that would have the freedom to determine their own leadership, staffing, curriculum and programming as long as the schools met performance agreements. Whether board members were inclined to try to work with the elected boards — as board member John Martin said — or preferred a different central administration system — as board President Peter Herschend said — they had nodded agreement with Herschend that the state’s accountability plan must “have teeth.” The proposal presented Tuesday does not propose the independent network of schools in the CEE-Trust plan, but leaves the state broad latitude in determining an alternative structure for an unaccredited or lapsed district. “We believe schools are best run in the local community,” Nicastro said. “But there could be structures other than the current district structures, and these are things we will explore.” Tier Two accredited districts will come under scrutiny. The focus will be not just districtwide, but school by school. Provisional districts will have to commit to reforms and spell them out and the required improvements in a performance contract. Measures could include new teacher evaluation systems, new literacy plans, leadership development, preschool programming or extended school days. An unaccredited district will have to negotiate its governance structure with the department and the state board, establishing required expectations if it keeps its board intact, or proposing takeover models. “I hope we can find a way to work with Kansas City and its current board and superintendent,” said Martin, who served as an interim superintendent for Kansas City in 2008. “There is a track record trending to progress,” he said. “And that needs to be rewarded with an opportunity to continue.” The next round of state report cards will come out this summer, and Nicastro said again Tuesday that if Kansas City can repeat or improve its provisional score, she would recommend that the state board give the district provisional accreditation. The district has been unaccredited since January 2012. The details The state has posted its accountability plan for schools and is taking feedback at dese.mo.gov/divimprove/sia/msip/unaccrediteddistricts.html. The state also is holding public hearings to gather feedback. The first meeting will be Monday in Kansas City at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley and Tuesday in St. Louis at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.
The state has posted its accountability plan for schools and is taking feedback at www.dese.mo.gov/unaccredited-districts.
The state also is holding public hearings to gather feedback. The first meeting will be Feb. 24 in Kansas City at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley and Feb. 25 in St. Louis at University of Missouri-St. Louis. The meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.