Barbara Shelly

Crunch time here for Kansas City Public Schools

Accreditation uncertainty continues for students of the Kansas City Public Schools.
Accreditation uncertainty continues for students of the Kansas City Public Schools. File photo

With the luxury of time, we could dwell on the irony of the Kansas City Public Schools becoming an endangered species just as it has achieved a degree of administrative stability.

But with the district unaccredited and a potentially devastating state transfer law bearing down on it, there is only time for the urgent question: What to do about this long-troubled school system?

The problem is we know a lot more about what won’t work than what will work.

It won’t work for Kansas City’s core school district to continue to fail children. That legacy is hollowed-out neighborhoods and thousands of ex-students having to settle for less in life because of insufficient academic preparation.

It definitely won’t work to sit back and let the transfer law take effect, requiring the Kansas City Public Schools to pay tuition and transportation expenses for students to attend class in neighboring districts. Two districts near St. Louis are on the verge of bankruptcy because of that policy.

“The transfer law as interpreted by the (state) Supreme Court does nothing to help schools get better,” said Bob Bartman, superintendent of Center School District and a former state education commissioner. “It could do a lot to make schools get worse.”

Radical measures imposed from outside of Kansas City won’t work either. That would include running the schools as part of a statewide “recovery” district and/or supplanting the school system with more charter schools. Based on emails made public this week, those ideas have caught the fancy of some in the civic community and perhaps Missouri education Commissioner Chris Nicastro.

It’s not that the ideas are terrible. New Orleans made great progress with a recovery district and expansion of charter schools. But without buy-in from the local community they are dead on arrival, especially if people perceive that the process leading up to change has been sneaky.

So Kansas City is in a bind, with the status quo unacceptable, the transfer law untenable and the equivalent of state-imposed detention unbearable.

But now we should pivot to a cheerier subject — schools that work. And we don’t need to go far afield.

Look no further than Grandview School District, where three-fourths of the students belong to minority groups and qualify for free- or-reduced lunch. Grandview earned a stellar 93.6 of 100 points on Missouri’s performance report card this year.

Center School District, which serves high numbers of impoverished and minority schoolchildren, scored 85.4 points. Raytown’s score was 85.

Clearly, the people who run these school districts have figured out some of the answers. We should listen to them.

The first thing they would say is that the transfer plan is a terrible idea. Successful school leaders understand that students learn best in their own communities.

A group of superintendents has offered a plan that puts failing buildings under the temporary control of an “achievement district” run by a state board. The goal is to reverse a school’s culture of failure and return it to its home district. If an entire district was still unaccredited after five years, it would be dissolved and its buildings parceled out to accredited districts.

Under that plan, instead of children leaving their schools and neighborhoods for more successful districts, the know-how of successful districts is brought to children in their home schools.

The plan deserves a closer look than it’s received so far from the state Board of Education, which seems inclined to allow the archaic transfer law to wreak havoc in the Kansas City area.

We know what doesn’t work. We’re pretty sure about what won’t work. Let’s give more credence to the people who have a track record of making schools work.