JEFFERSON CITY – Perplexed by a pattern of failure, Missouri education officials said Tuesday they have hired a private education reform group to analyze why Kansas City schools keep coming up short and to help devise a turn-around plan for unaccredited schools.
The decision by the State Board of Education comes as it also directed staff to increase oversight of Missouri's three unaccredited school districts when a new state law takes effect Aug. 28 giving the agency greater powers to intervene in troubled schools.
The $385,000 contract with The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust seeks recommendations by January that could later be implemented in the Kansas City School District and potentially also in Normandy, Riverview Gardens or any other districts that become unaccredited. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the contract is being funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Hall Family Foundation in Kansas City.
State Education Board Chairman Peter Herschend said it is imperative for the state to put together a new program for improving unaccredited schools, because he expects additional districts to need help in coming years as Missouri implements new accreditation standards.
"We have to do a better job than we have been able to do in the past," Herschend said after Tuesday's board meeting. "It is going to take a different approach — it isn't a matter of just simply saying, 'If we just get some better principles in our buildings, if we just get some better teachers.'"
The CEE Trust describes itself as a network of city foundations, nonprofits and mayor's offices that supports "education innovation and reform." It is an initiative of The Mind Trust, based in Indianapolis, which undertook a similar project several years ago focused on its home town school system under a $681,518 contract from the Indiana Department of Education.
In its Missouri bid documents, The Mind Trust said it plans to work with the education policy group Public Impact, based in Chapel Hill, N.C. The bid documents pledge a report that analyzes the conditions that have led to poor results in Kansas City schools and recommendations for how the state should intervene to change its governance and operations.
The Kansas City School District, which has about 16,500 students, lost its state accreditation in January 2012 and is scheduled to lapse June 30, 2014, if it does not show improvements. But a law that takes effect next week allows the state to intervene immediately in unaccredited schools and gives the education agency greater discretion to make changes.
The state board approved a measure Tuesday directing staff to "increase the instructional improvement efforts" in unaccredited districts and to "closely monitor all expenditures, contracts, personnel obligations, legal actions and other operations" of the districts beginning Aug. 29.
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said state instructional staff may meet more regularly with district personnel, increase classroom visits and attend more local board meetings while generally "heightening our presence there."
"It's not about replacing their management with ours, I think it's rather about looking at the same data — bringing in some additional eyes to assist them," Nicasto said.
More than 2,600 students in the Riverview Gardens and Normandy districts have transferred to schools in other nearby districts this academic year under a 1993 state education law that was just recently upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court. Similar transfers are on hold in Kansas City because of ongoing litigation there.
State law requires unaccredited districts to pay the cost of students who chose to enroll in other schools. Nicastro has said that could impose such a financial burden on the some districts that the state may have to come to their aid. Because of the costs, she said the student-transfer law may not be sustainable over a long period.
"What this cries out for is a bigger solution," she said.