Guest Commentary

Focus in KC must be on improving schools for all students


Kansas City can’t give up on improving academic outcomes for all children. It is a difficult and complex task, but there are ways forward.

When I moved to Kansas City in 1997 I was confronted with problems in public education. I chose to live in Kansas City and was warned that once a parent, I’d need to pay for private school or move to the suburbs for public school. When I became pregnant I received another warning to put my unborn child on a waiting list if I wanted quality day care. There was a lack of confidence in the public schools, a lack of access to quality early learning and perceptions that needed to be addressed with a sense of urgency.

Access to quality early learning programs is limited, especially for those in poverty. In 2014, I agreed to be one of three co-champions for the Greater Kansas City Chamber’s Kindergarten Readiness Initiative, knowing the challenges. Funders will never be able to provide all the necessary resources. People with means are likely to find care for their kids. The less well-off are often left with options that may not prepare a child for kindergarten and beyond.

What if quality early learning weren’t based on luck or wealth but policy, priority and investment? Recent surveys indicate universal, voluntary pre-K has bipartisan support nationwide. Studies show early learning programs are effective, particularly for kids in poverty. Why aren’t we investing more in child development?

Early education alone will not solve these difficult issues. If children leave pre-K for a dysfunctional K-12 experience, much of what was gained in early years can be lost. We need access to quality for all students, through 12th grade. It’s a daunting task.

Many new parents today are receiving the same advice I did in 1997. Parents have good reasons to choose a private school. However, the advice about public schools can lead society to toxic inequity in urban centers. It deters success in a city striving to be a center of innovation and entrepreneurship.

There’s more to do, but I am encouraged by an increased focus on improving public education. In the past six years, concerned citizens have fought for better schools in a variety of ways. One group petitioned Kansas City Public Schools to reopen a closed neighborhood school and worked to create a better quality school.

A second group issued a public request for proposals for a charter school operator to come to their neighborhood. Most recently, a partnership between the Kansas City district, a new charter school and a nonprofit launched a neighborhood school with a rigorous curriculum.

Proposing one solution across different communities is not a good idea. Public education problems (both traditional and charter) have been lamented for years. Flexibility around determining the best way to deliver free, high-quality, public education to as many students as possible is warranted and necessary.

We can get these issues right. Good public schools lift communities. To quote Winston Churchill: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never….” I can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring in schools that help students succeed. It can be done, and we can’t give up.

Tracy L. McFerrin of Kansas City is vice president at the Hall Family Foundation and one of three co-champions of the KC Chamber’s Kindergarten Readiness Initiative.