Kansas City sits right in the middle of the country and has been right in the middle of the public school debate for decades. Declining enrollment, desegregation rulings, the rise of charter schools, superintendent turnover and the mixed results of academic improvement initiatives make this city similar to others wanting better public schools but not sure how to get there.
During the hearings and eventual confirmation of the U.S. secretary of education, we heard both legitimate concerns and a lot of heated rhetoric about flashpoint issues such as school choice, measurement, vouchers and teacher unions. Unfortunately, it feels like the national debate is missing the point.
Our founder, Ewing Kauffman, believed that all the money in the world cannot solve problems, but working together there isn’t a problem we can’t solve. Education is a big test of his philosophy, and the Kauffman Foundation is working with a wide range of entities to put his words into action.
The national interests may want to take a look at the collaborative efforts emerging in Kansas City. There is no one answer for everyone to the complicated challenges posed in the public education sector. We are extremely fortunate to work with districts, charter schools, nonprofits and others to support a combination of conditions and activities that improve student results.
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We are deeply committed to public schools and their students, both district and charter, and engaged in conversations and activities to work with our community to devise uncommon solutions to all-too-common problems.
Working together means learning together. In the last eighteen months, more than 300 people from a broad cross-section of the community have been part of visits to cities with concentrations of high-performing public schools.
One reason for the visits is to see different district, charter, alternative and turnaround school models and learn from the parents, students, staff and community leaders working in and around them. The mix of schools provides an experience that helps participants understand the potential of public education from several angles.
An equally important purpose of these trips is to provide diverse groups of educators, parents, business leaders, clergy and civil servants 48 hours to sit together on buses, around dinner tables and in classrooms talking about their experiences and observations from both the visits and from their lives in Kansas City. These groups are made up of people who may not typically have opportunities to talk with each other about much of anything, but on these trips they have the space to begin a dialogue about schools, students and how we as a community can continue to serve them better. Bringing those relationships home and continuing to build them is critical.
Even if the national debate continues to be one of competing ideologies and self-interest, we will have many people in Kansas City focusing the conversation on student achievement by utilizing the promise of district schools, charter schools and combinations of those public models.
The Kauffman Foundation will continue to learn with and from others about the most effective way to support those preparing students for education, work and life beyond high school, even in a climate where the voices of those closest to students’ challenges and successes are muted by ideological bantering. We need to approach this work together with both humility and urgency, because our students can’t wait.
Aaron North is the vice president of education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he leads efforts focused on ensuring students have access to high-quality schools.