Systemic Reform in Kansas City

Because of Kansas City Public Schools’ (KCPS) persistent underperformance, the state is contemplating taking over the district. They engaged CEE-Trust and Public Impact (organizations I admire and have worked with) to produce a plan.

What they’ve come up with is revolutionary. Should the state board of education adopt it, Kansas City will soon rival New Orleans as the most exciting and important city for K–12 education.

I’ve now read the entirety of the nearly 80-page report, and I’m impressed. It’s a document informed by the best thinking on systemic reform over the last two decades. You can see Chubb and Moe, Paul Hill, Ted Kolderie, and Neerav Kingsland in its pages. And that’s a delight.

While the report argues for some traditional interventions—namely, higher teacher salaries, more expansive pre-K, and greater wrap-around services—those pale in comparison to its main thrust.

Over decades, there have been countless state takeovers of districts across the nation, and they’ve all failed to bring about the dramatic improvement needed. That’s because they’ve all kept in place the failed district structure.

The traditional state takeover just installs a new, state-hired superintendent and removes governance authority from a locally elected board. The district’s position as the dominant, default operator of schools is preserved.

The report’s recommendations address that fundamental problem. In its own words, “Our conclusion is that it’s not the people in the system that’s the problem; it’s the system itself.”

The report makes the case for ending the district.

“Simply put, the traditional urban school system does not work.”

Here are the basic outlines of the new system: The central office of KCPS goes away. A new, slimmed-down administrative unit is created, the “Community Schools Office” (CSO). It would not run schools; that would be left to an array of nonprofits.

The CSO would be a regulatory body ensuring that schools have funding, facilities, and transportation and taking care of work best handled centrally, such as enrollment systems and expulsion policies.

Most notably, the CSO would oversee the performance of the city’s public schools, entering into performance contracts with each—allowing new schools to start, enabling great schools to grow, and replacing those not producing adequate results.

According to the report, “A system that is driven by parent and student choice will create more diverse options to appeal to students’ varying needs, and those schools that fail to attract enough students will be replaced by other schools with a better chance of success.“

Two particularly valuable aspects of the report are worth attention. First, it argues for a “Community Schools Fund,” essentially a nonprofit harbormaster that would lead efforts related to school incubation, human capital, information-dissemination, and more. Such entities, like New Schools for New Orleans and The Mind Trust, are essential for systemic reform; they step up as the public sector moves from rowing to steering.

Second, it recommends a “Transition Authority,” which would temporarily run schools while, on a parallel track, high-quality nonprofits ramp up. The report’s prudent approach to bringing about the new system—envisioning a careful, multi-year transition period—is commendable.

The report, smartly, also preemptively addresses the usual-suspect charges. “This plan is not about privatizing public education. This is about reimagining public education.” Later: “This plan is not anti-labor.” It will enable teachers to earn more, retain collective bargaining rights, and take ownership of their schools. Maybe most notably, “for-profit school management organizations would not be eligible” to run schools.

There are a few things, though, that I’d quibble with. Maybe the most concerning is that schools in this new system would not be LEAs (as charters are in most states); instead, the CSO has this designation. This bestows certain powers on the central office that aren’t necessary for the system to function and could ultimately serve to minimize the independence of schools under its umbrella. Moreover, if a group of schools run by the same nonprofit—for example, an outstanding CMO—wanted to apply for, say, Race to the Top–District, it couldn’t. The central office would need to do so (charters that are LEAs are allowed to apply for such programs).

Another issue is that the CSO will effectively function as an authorizer, overseeing schools via performance contracts. We’ve learned that the best authorizers are single-purpose entities—they only do authorizing. For the CSO to conduct school oversight on top of its other system-level activities would pull it in too many directions; this would tax its resources and potentially create mixed motives. I’d prefer the CSO to take care of system regulation and allow an authorizer to approve and monitor school quality.

Lastly, the report does not take a three-sector approach; it is explicit that faith-based schools would not be part of the system envisioned. Of course, the private-schools sector shouldn’t be part of the public-schools CSO. But I would’ve preferred the report to point out that school quality matters far more than school operator, and while the CSO-model is a promising approach to the district sector, it should be viewed in the context of a city’s entire portfolio of schools—CSO, charter, and private.

But I don’t want these relatively modest misgivings to detract from the larger point.

Said simply, if the state board of education accepts this plan, things will never be the same. It will be a state-led initiative to replace the urban district as the delivery system for public schooling, thereby breaking with 100 years of history. Other states considering district takeovers will likely follow suit.

This would be the invaluable next step in the evolution of systemic reform. Chartering showed that the district does not need to own and operate all public schools in a geographic area. Louisiana’s Recovery School District showed that a new type of statewide entity could work around a district. This approach would show that the district structure could be brought to an end.

I hope the state board embraces the plan so we can get about the business of bringing these great ideas to life and helping improve the prospects of thousands of disadvantaged kids who deserve better.

-Andy Smarick

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