Set the Schools Free


Kansas City district should decentralize and set the schools free

The Kansas City Star, JANUARY 19, 2016

The Kansas City district’s new master plan doesn’t go far enough to save its schools; Decision making should be transferred from the central office to individual schools


The Kansas City Public Schools district is slowly going out of business. The district’s new master plan doesn’t do enough to save it.

Student enrollment has dropped almost 50 percent in the last 10 years, from 27,190 in 2005 to 14,228 in 2015. Two of three students are not proficient in reading or math.

At the same time, Kansas City’s charter school sector has steadily grown. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of the school district. Charters now enroll more than 40 percent of all public school students within KCPS boundaries (10,774). This number is growing — at least four highly anticipated new K-6 charter schools are scheduled to open in 2016.

Kansas City families are voting with their feet.

So, what is the district doing to compete in this increasingly crowded education landscape?

The new master plan offers some well-researched recommendations — increasing student transportation to improve attendance, moving to year-round schooling to reduce summer learning loss.

But otherwise, KCPS schools are competing against charter schools with one hand tied behind their backs. That’s because they can’t truly compete with charters as long as key decisions that affect their schools — in particular staffing, curriculum and budget — are made by the central office, far from the students and communities the schools serve.

Many talented educators will continue to seek employment opportunities outside of the district — namely in charter schools — where leaders have the freedom to address the unique needs of their student populations and school culture.

So, do you really love the district? Do you believe that a centrally coordinated school district is central to Kansas City’s identity, and best for its students and families?

Then tell the school board to “Set KCPS Schools Free” and give district schools a chance to truly compete.

This means, first and foremost, giving up on a one-size-fits-all approach to our school system, and recognizing that we need a diverse array of schools to serve a diverse student population.

It means that the central office needs to get out of the business of running schools. The past three decades — characterized by low academic performance, a revolving door of superintendents and school principals, and steadily declining student enrollment — has shown that they’re not very good at it.

It means bringing in a system leader who has a vision for, and can develop a plan to support, the transition of decision-making power to individual schools. Going forward, when school leaders identify a need — for more teachers, new learning strategies, or different scheduling — they should be empowered to make changes that best support their school’s students and families.

This transition to school-level decision-making obviously can’t happen overnight. And the central office shouldn’t go away entirely. There are, of course, huge efficiencies and cost-savings to be gained through provision of certain centrally coordinated services, such as transportation and facilities.

Given the manageable size of our school district, we have a tremendous opportunity to rethink how public education is delivered in Kansas City. Let’s not waste it.

Rebecca Haessig is a parent of a charter school student in Kansas City. She is a former director of education initiatives at the Kauffman Foundation and has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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