Guest Commentary

KC’s fragmented public school system is unsustainable

Wendell Phillips Elementary school student, Currency Marshall (left) listened as the Kansas City Public School Superintendent Mark Bedell talked with classmate Noah Adams.
Wendell Phillips Elementary school student, Currency Marshall (left) listened as the Kansas City Public School Superintendent Mark Bedell talked with classmate Noah Adams. The Star

School choice has been a reality in Kansas City for more than 20 years. As a result, we have 45 public elementary, 23 middle and 15 high schools serving 26,000 students within the boundaries of the Kansas City Public School District. Unlike what we see in adjacent suburban districts, the profusion of choice has contributed to a fragmented array of K-12 paths for families to navigate, as well as redundancy and inefficiency with 23 individual school systems, each operating under different governance rules, educational models and administrations.

While some families are able to successfully navigate these varying paths, many others are frustrated and confused. Furthermore, redundancy also contributes to educational inequity, with some schools receiving more resources than others. Data show that even as the number of school options has increased, families continue to leave the city for surrounding school systems, resulting in a 29 percent decline in school-age population since 2000 — roughly three times the city population decline for the same period.

The district’s board of directors and administration recognize our own role in this environment, and are interested in working with other school operators and the community to ensure quality across Kansas City’s education landscape.

In a world of finite resources, however, adding more choices to the current landscape only results in the school district and charter operators being able to offer less in the way of core and elective classes, arts and music, athletics and activities at every school.

An instructive example to look to is Springfield, Mo., where public schools are able to serve 25,000 students with 37 elementary, 11 middle and five high schools. This highly-efficient system allows educators in Springfield to better allocate resources, respond to emerging needs and utilize staff and facilities to the greatest benefit for students.

The time has come for those who are responsible for public education in Kansas City to come together to work on strategies that will result in a more coordinated system that meets the needs of all students. As one of our initial steps, the board of directors recently approved a set of principles to serve as a guide for Superintendent Mark Bedell and his team to assess opportunities when collaborating with groups on education initiatives. Our starting point as a board was that any partnership the district undertakes must guarantee equity, reduce fragmentation, be held to the same state-mandated accountability standards, and improve the financial and operational effectiveness of the overall system.

Administrators took these principles and outlined a process for organizations interested in collaboration with the school district to create a more coordinated and responsive public education system. We recognize there is a place and space for educational options, but we believe the current system is unsustainable. Now is the time for public educators to work together to make sure we have a system that works for families.

Kansas City continues to flourish and attract businesses and new professionals and workers. It is time to take a look at how we can better knit together the city’s public school options into a cohesive system to keep families here in Kansas City and fully meet the future educational needs of our diverse students.

I understand and embrace this responsibility as a steward of public education and look forward to working as a team with the Kansas City Public Schools board and administration, along with other public education leaders in the city, to ensure our schools represent the quality and opportunity our families deserve.

For those wishing to join us in this endeavor, the board’s guiding principles and administrative process for education collaboration can be found at When we all work together, our students reap the rewards.

Jennifer Wolfsie is member at-large of the Kansas City Public School Board of Directors.