By Chris Blank and Heather Hollingsworth
JEFFERSON CITY – A state-run entity would be in charge of recruiting community groups and educators to operate schools in failing school districts under a proposal presented Monday to the State Board of Education.
The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, or CEE-Trust, was tapped to come up with a plan last year as a new state law took effect that gave the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education greater powers to intervene in troubled school systems.
Although the private education reform group's report focuses on the Kansas City school district, the recommendations could also be used in Normandy and Riverview Gardens — both in St. Louis County — or other struggling districts.
"The State Board will consider this draft plan along with all others we have received to ensure the state is prepared for intervention in unaccredited districts should that become necessary," Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said. "As part of that process, we encourage public feedback and thoughtful conversation on this and other plans that have been submitted."
CEE-Trust was hired to analyze why the Kansas City district has come up short and to help devise a turn-around plan for Missouri's unaccredited districts. Officials also are considering other possible models for state intervention.
Under the CEE-Trust plan, the state would establish an entity called the Community Schools Office in communities with a district requiring state intervention. The office would be responsible for core administrative functions as well as selecting and holding accountable various school operators.
School operators could include nonprofit organizations, charter schools and neighboring districts. The school operators would have authority over decisions such as increasing teacher pay and choosing the curriculum that fits the needs of its students.
"This plan is about transforming a school system," said Ethan Gray, the founder and CEO of CEE-Trust.
The state Board of Education would appoint the executive director for the Community Schools Office and a community advisory board of local leaders. There also would be a transition authority responsible for operating schools not yet able to be independently run.
After school performance improves, a locally elected school board would oversee that city's Community Schools Office, though the model would remain in place.
CEE-Trust said its plan would shift significant funds to control of individual schools, which would free money that educators could use in ways they think will boost performance. The proposal also calls for every 3- and 4-year-old child in Kansas City to have access to preschool.
Gray said there are successful urban schools in the U.S., and those usually have educators at the helm of major decisions and meaningful accountability.
CEE-Trust was started by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform nonprofit that operates a charter school incubator. The organization said the proposal is not a charter school plan nor is it a privatization proposal.
Nicastro, however, has received criticism from some lawmakers and community organizations after emails raised questions about the bidding process used to select CEE-Trust. One complaint was that CEE-Trust's bid was nearly three times higher than the closest competitor. Critics held a rally before Monday's meeting.
The school proposal comes at a critical time because a state law that began to be implemented in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts last fall allows students to transfer from unaccredited to accredited school districts. Combined, the two districts lost more than 2,000 students and are slashing budgets to pay for transfers.
Transfers to neighboring districts could begin as soon as this fall in Kansas City after the neighboring districts lost a legal challenge and the state board denied an accreditation upgrade. The state board said last fall it wasn't ready to grant the district provisional accreditation because many students were still struggling despite an increase in academic gains, and that the district had to show those gains were sustainable.
The Kansas City district, which has about 15,000 in kindergarten through high school, is suing over the decision.
The Kansas City district was unveiling this week the draft of a plan for improving local schools that was developed with a local coalition. Superintendent R. Stephen Green said the district is reviewing CEE-Trust's plan, noting there are some good measures and some things previously tried.
Green said the district believes its proposal "is the best solution to continue building on our two consecutive years of unprecedented growth in student achievement, as well as tried and true measures for best serving our students."
State education officials plan a town hall meeting on several possible plans for struggling schools on Jan. 29 in Kansas City and on Feb. 4 in St. Louis.