JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – It’s shaping up to be an important spring for the 15,000 students who are trapped in the dysfunctional and chronically failing Kansas City Public Schools.

big changes aheadThe Missouri State Board of Education – the body charged with setting the state’s K-12 policies – could soon announce a new plan for overhauling schools in districts that have lost state accreditation. As things stand now, the unaccredited KCPS would be the first district affected by the new policies.

State accreditation acts as a kind of seal of approval that assures families, colleges and employers that a district’s students are receiving an education that meets basic academic standards. Unaccredited districts are susceptible to being taken over by the state.

While graduates of an unaccredited school district such as Kansas City still receive a diploma that is deemed valid by state officials, many parents are concerned that a degree from a failing district stigmatizes their children and seriously limits their college and employment opportunities.

State school board members are considering a range of ideas for solving the problem of unaccredited districts. The plans range from very modest (i.e. increased “collaboration” between the state and a local school board) to the downright revolutionary (i.e. dissolving a failed district and creating a system of autonomous schools).

The board’s decision could come as soon as March 21, and while no one knows for certain what the final plan will look like, reform advocates are hoping for an ambitious plan that gives state officials quicker access to – and more leverage in turning around – struggling school districts.

If that happens, that’ll be great news for the estimated 62,000 Missouri students who attend school in an academically shaky district.

The state legislature is considering some major changes in K-12 policy, too. Specifically, Missouri lawmakers are scrambling to update a 1993 “transfer law” that allows students trapped in an unaccredited district to transfer to an effective one – at the failing district’s expense.

The transfer law has been on school leaders’ minds after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld it last summer. Since then, roughly 2,000 students from two unaccredited districts have transferred to “high-performing schools” in other districts, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

The Education Establishment hates the transfer law and would like to see it killed and buried in an unmarked grave. Their biggest complaints are that the law causes financial hardships for the already struggling districts and overwhelms the “receiving” districts with new transfer students – and their test scores, which can affect the district’s standing with the state.

Lawmakers are attempting to address some of the Establishment’s concerns by raising the bar on who qualifies for a transfer and imposing other limitations. But all indications are that the Republican-controlled legislature only wants to tweak the transfer law and preserve it as an escape hatch for desperate Missouri families.

That seems to be a positive development for disadvantaged students.

The hopeful scenario for Kansas City families and others is that over the next two and a half months, Missouri leaders will act aggressively to improve the substandard school districts. If they do, an untold number of disadvantaged families will benefit for years to come, and fewer students will need the transfer law.

However, if officials get cold feet on the reform front – and if Kansas City schools improve just enough to gain “provisional accreditation” – it could leave families trapped in a lousy district and with little hope that things will improve any time soon.

Something new under the sun?

Out of all the changes being contemplated by state leaders, none holds more promise or more controversy than a plan from Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust) for dealing with failing, unaccredited school districts.

CEE-Trust is a coalition of nonprofits, mayors’ offices and foundations that devises unique ways of improving local schools. The coalition has crafted plans for improving troubled school districts in Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia and Tennessee, according to Education Week.

The group’s plan for Missouri – which the state commissioned to be developed amid great controversy – would fix failing districts by essentially dissolving them and creating a system of autonomous schools.

KansasCity.com offers this summary of how the CEE-Trust’s revolutionary plan would work for unaccredited districts such as KCPS:

“The district would come under the control of a Community School Office, with an executive director selected by the education commissioner, and an advisory board chosen by the state school board – replacing the current administration and elected school board.

“The state, with the executive director, would create a Transition Authority that would take over management of the district’s schools. The Community School Office would begin handing schools over to independent operators that meet its criteria, and establish binding performance agreements.”

The independent operators could include charter schools, nonprofit groups, or successful school districts.

When CEE-Trust CEO Ethan Gray explained the sweeping vision to the state board, a member asked where such a plan had been used before.

“You hired us because it hasn’t been done,” Gray replied, according to KansasCity.com.

‘It would really shake things up’

The teacher unions and the rest of the usual suspects abhor the plan, and it’s easy to understand why. The CEE-Trust plan would cost a lot of subpar school employees their jobs, and it would free schools of the Thou Shalt Not work rules that fill the pages of collectively bargained teacher union contracts.

And while there is nothing in the CEE-Trust plan to prohibit a newly autonomous school from entering into a collective bargaining agreement with a teachers union, it’s understood that the plan could effectively dismantle the labor groups within unaccredited school districts.

It’s believed the medicine prescribed by the CEE-Trust plan is too strong for some state school board members. Last month, the Kansas City Star reported “the board seemed to turn away from some of the key elements of the state-commissioned plan.”

However, there are eight members on the state board, and most of them appear receptive to at least some aspects of the CEE-Trust plan.

Billy Eddy, chairman of the Kansas City Schools-focused watchdog group Do the Right Thing for Kids, is hopeful the board will incorporate many of the CEE-Trust ideas into its final policy decision.

“Some of the elements of the CEE-Trust plan are based on solid research,” Eddy tells EAGnews.

Eddy especially likes the idea of creating autonomous schools. He says that would foster innovation, which in turn, would improve the quality of instruction given to students. It would also give principals more control of school policies and staffing decisions – and that would increase accountability.

The CEE-Trust plan “would really shake things up – in a good way,” Eddy says.

All indications are that students in Kansas City Public Schools would be the first to benefit from any new policies that are approved by the state school board and legislature.

“The Kansas City district has never been fully accredited since the state adopted its accreditation system in the early 1990s,” Eddy notes. “It has bounced back and forth between unaccredited and provisionally accredited.”

The district has been unaccredited since 2012, but students have not been allowed to make use of the transfer law due to legal challenges. However, now that the law has been found constitutional, KCPS’ 15,000 students will be eligible to transfer out at the district’s expense next fall – if the school system does not gain provisional accreditation from the state this summer.

CBS St. Louis reports the “potential student transfers could cost the district $60 million to $150 million from a $268 million budget.”

Nobody can say exactly how different Missouri’s K-12 system will look by the end of May, if at all.

Eddy says it’s his “fervent hope” that students in perennially failing districts such as KCPS will soon have more options for receiving a decent education.

State school board President Peter Herschend explained the stakes during a January meeting: “What we have done in the past has not worked. … However this board acts has to make a difference for kids.”

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