A case study in misconceived urban school reform

(Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)
(Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

School reformers are looking at a plan being considered in Kansas City, Missouri, to dismantle the school system as the wave of the future for urban districts. This plan calls for the creation of a collection of schools that will each by run by non-profit organizations under a new central authority, all  conceived under the premise that the problem with the under-performing system (and that of all urban districts) is that the structure  is bad. Is it? Here to take a hard look at the plan and the underlying premise is Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  A version of this appeared on  his blog School Finance 101.

 

By Bruce D. Baker

Urban school districts are easy targets – often the whipping boy – exemplars of the failures of big government bureaucracy. Kansas City, Missouri, is a frequent target when it comes to education policy. But as I’ve discussed in more than one peer-reviewed article (one, another), and other reports, tales of Kansas City’s failures are largely urban legend.

This past week, the good citizens of Kansas City and Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education were graced with one of the most vacuous manifestos on education reform I’ve read in a really long time. I’ve pontificated about numerous other vacuous manifestos but this one is a little different. This report by an organization calling itself CEE, or Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, in collaboration with Public Impact, is a bit more serious. No more credible, but more serious, in that it is assumed that state policymakers in Missouri might actually act on the report’s recommendations.

I’ve had the displeasure of reviewing several reports by Public Impact in the Past. Their standard fare is to establish a bold conclusion, and then cite (including self citation) materials that support – with no real validation- their forgone conclusion, cite other stuff that’s totally unrelated, and cite yet other stuff that doesn’t even exist. Thus, they are actually able to construct a report with a few graphs here and there and lots of footnotes, without ever validating a single major (albeit forgone) conclusion (see for example, this one, by the same author, under a different organizational umbrella, or this one).

This report starts with the forgone conclusion (drawn from the rhetoric of Andy Smarick), that:

“Simply put, the traditional urban school system does not work. It is not stable. It does not serve the needs of its students. It does not, nor has it ever, produced the kind of results all children, families, and taxpayers deserve. And it does not create the conditions that research shows enables great urban schools to thrive. It is time to think outside the box and have a robust community conversation about how to build a new and different school system that is structured for success.” (p. 7)

With this hypothesis – actually, forgone conclusion – firmly established the authors need merely connect the dots back to the woes of Kansas City and how to fix them. Here’s a synopsis – call it an advanced organizer – of the story line crafted in the report:

  • Urban districts don’t work (and aren’t stable)
  • Kansas City is an urban district, therefore, it doesn’t work (even though we find it has stabilized)
  • Privately operated charter schools in Newark, New Jersey, New York City, Texas and New Orleans are producing miracles – yielding incredible graduation rates and high test scores while serving comparably low income and otherwise needy children (even though they really aren’t serving similar kids, and many have far more resources)
  • Thus, the same can – no must – work in Kansas City (even though it hasn’t)
  • Somewhat tangentially, decentralized financing – driving money to schools for site based control – is necessarily good (even though reviews of the research suggest otherwise)

Therefore, the only solution is to deconstruct the entire failed urban district, turn control over to a non-government authority which shall loosely govern a confederation of private non-profit entities that shall compete with one another for students, choose which market niche and geographic space within KC they wish to serve and be evaluated on the test scores and graduation rates they ultimately produce.

Are you following? If not, let’s take a stroll through some of the “facts” provided to support their end-game, along with some of the actual facts about the Kansas City Missouri Public School District.

Justification for Intervention?

The authors’ primary justification for the bold transformation of Kansas City Public Schools is that they have low average test scores. And everyone knows that’s bad and can’t be tolerated, whatever the root causes.

Specifically, the evidence they provide is that:

  • 70 percent of KCPS students are below proficient in math and English Language Arts (ELA).
  • ELA proficiency rates have declined in some recent years, despite improved management and operations.
  • Very, very few students graduating from KCPS are ready for college based on their ACT scores.
  • While science and social studies scores have improved this past year, proficiency rates are still below 30 percent.
  • And average KCPS student achievement growth is lower than state predictions based on similar districts’ results, meaning that KCPS students could fall further behind their peers over time.

While some argue that the system has been stabilized after years of dysfunction, one must ask: what good is stability if most students still cannot read, write, or do math proficiently, or graduate from high school ready for college or careers? (p. 7)

Okay, but really, how does that stack up against expectations? Not that we should succumb to low expectations. But certainly, any credible report summarizing student outcomes in a major urban district should summarize some of the background and context for these figures.  But alas, not this one!

Well, let’s take a look. First, Kansas Citians know that their fine city and their fine school district aren’t by any stretch one and the same. Perhaps that right there is an issue to explore. KCPS, formerly KCMSD was crafted as a massive boundary gerrymandering effort in the immediate post-Brown era. Portions of the city limits were consumed by the reorganization and mergers of predominantly white neighborhoods and “suburbs” (which are really now all part of the city) at the time. In many areas, less poor, whiter (though increasingly poor and minority) sections of the city still remain in other school districts to the south and east. The poorest areas of the city, where blacks were relegated to live for decades, were included in KCMSD, along with the western edge of Independence, Missouri, which remained the most “integrated” portion of the city district until the past decade (when clever legislators passed a law allowing that section to vote itself out of KCMSD and into Independence). That’s why I bring this all up – because KCMSD itself was gerrymandered to begin with as a district for poor minority neighborhoods in the city, and because that gerrymandering persisted as recently as 2007-08!

The district really didn’t have much of a chance. Concurrent  trends led to additional pressures. Charter schools began popping up in the late 1990s and grew throughout the 2000s. Figure 1 below shows a) total enrollment for schools within city limits, non-charter enrollments, KCMSD enrollments and charter enrollments, from 1999 to 2011. A really important point here is that  KCMSD’s share of enrollment within the city limits was relatively small to begin with, because of the way in which the city was carved up in the post-brown period – exacerbated in 2008. And enrollments have been on a slow, steady decline in the past decade. Charter enrollments have climbed, and while they represent a significant share of KCMSD’s geographic space, they are a much smaller share of the city limits as a whole.

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Source: NCES Common Core of Data, Public School Universe Survey [error in 2005 data]

Figure 2 shows the shares of low income (% qualified for free lunch, or <130% income level for poverty) children by group. Notably, KCMSD and charters within KCMSD are much higher than other schools in those carved, formerly suburban spaces in city limits (this includes Center, Hickman, a portion of Lee’s Summit, etc.).

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Source: NCES Common Core of Data, Public School Universe Survey [error in 2005 data]

Much has been made of the desegregation litigation that, as the story goes, made Kansas City the highest spending school district in the world… for decades on end… all for naught. Figure 3 gives us a story lined walk-through of the relative state and local revenues of KCMSD compared to the average for its surrounding labor market from 1993 to 2011. Funding really started scaling up around 1988 toward a peak around 1993. But after the U.S. Supreme court in the 1990s indicated that current remedies went a bit too far (taking an approach of trying to attract suburban residents into the city’s magnet schools – because the judge really had no other way to achieve integration), the relative funding for KCMSD schools fell precipitously over time (actually what happened is that it stagnated – and other caught up).

For nearly a decade now, KCMSD state and local revenue per pupil has been only marginally above the average for the labor market.

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Source: U.S. Census Fiscal Survey of Local Governments (F33)

But as figure 4 shows, the average poverty rate of children in the district, compared to surroundings, is anything but average. KCMSD’s student population has remained 2x to nearly 3x as poor as surrounding areas – even Wyandotte!  One certainly can’t expect to achieve stellar outcomes with a population this needy, and only relatively average resource levels to serve them (yes, money matters and even more so for needy kids!).

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Source: U.S. Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates

So… to summarize… what we have here is not a simple case of inexcusable bad test scores that simply have to be “fixed” by dismantling the district and replacing it with a miraculous new structure – without changing any of the underlying causes or conditions.

What we have here is a complex, long running case, of disadvantageous housing development, boundary gerrymandering, high poverty and declining resources.

For any report on the future of KCMSD schools to miss all that is completely inexcusable. It’s downright ridiculous, amateur, sloppy and unprofessional.

Justification for Using Chartering as Replacement?

Given that the report’s authors have missed entirely most of the relevant context and history of Kansas City schools, how then do they arrive at their proposed solution – to replace the “failed urban district” with a loosely governed confederation of benevolent non-profit providers?

The answers, of course, can be found in the many miracle charter schools that grace great American cities like Newark, New Jersey (hey… Newark and KC have a lot in common), New York City and New Orleans.

Among their chosen miracles, the authors point to the Uncommon Schools network as proving that one can simply put a non-profit manager in charge and whamo…. kablam! You’ve got transformation of student outcomes! The authors explain:

Across the schools, the average student population is 98% black or Hispanic, and 78% receives free or reduced-price lunch. Uncommon Schools was awarded the 2013 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools for demonstrating the most outstanding overall improvement in the nation for low-income students and students of color.25 Uncommon Schools closed 56% of achievement gaps between its low-income schools and the state’s non-low-income students.26

And they even provide a nifty graph showing that Uncommon Schools in Newark (uh… that’s just North Star Academy) not only beats the citywide average, but also beats the state wide average on performance measures.

baker5

This is so laughable it hurts. Really.

What they totally neglect to point out is that:

To summarize, North Star’s overall performance is mediocre at best (given their attrition, lack of special needs students, etc.) and deeply disturbing at worst, when one looks beyond average test scores among those who stay. Choosing North Star as a model of beating the odds, and representing the school as in this report, is either just plain ignorant or outright reckless.

Now, on the one hand, they simply might not have ever looked at any actual numbers on North Star. But that would be equally irresponsible. The choice to use North Star as proof of the value of chartering – as applies to the current proposal for Kansas City – is bafflingly ignorant.

The report provides similarly crude information on New York City charter schools, including reference to New York City’s own Uncommon Schools. The reality is that New York City charters, like North Star in Newark, are anything but miraculous.  They are well privately subsidized schools, serving low need student populations, providing them smaller classes, well paid teachers and yielding less than astounding results.

New Orleans in particular might best be described not as some positive shining star miracle brought on by Hurricane Katrina, but rather as an unmitigated disaster of education policy. This is perhaps best documented in the work of Kristen Buras in Harvard Education Review. I have written about the spotty/questionable performance of New Orleans charter schools here.   See also this critique of attempts at selling the supposed NOLA miracle.

What about Existing Chartering in Kansas City?

What I find most interesting about the proposals in the CEE report is that they justify the shift to a 100% non-profit, loosely coupled charter confederation based on the supposed (albeit completely unfounded) great successes achieved by charters in New Jersey, New York and New Orleans. But if full scaled charterization of Kansas City is going to be the savior of the city, then why hasn’t it already? Why are Kansas City’s own charter school results so lukewarm at best? And why haven’t Kansas City charter operators stepped up to fill the void of serving those children most in need, in the city’s poorest neighborhoods?

The report uses the following deceptively simple figure of average performance?

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But what does KC charter performance look like in context? Here are a few figures focused on lower grades (up to 8th) schools in Kansas City, including charter, magnet and regular district schools (though some are special emphasis). Figure 6 shows the MAP Index for schools by percent free lunch. The average for charters is slightly higher (as in the above figure) for charters, but charter performance, like district school performance varies, with the charters serving the highest poverty populations really struggling as one might expect.

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This figure shows a similar pattern for proficiency rates.

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The presumption in the proposal is that the diamonds here can simply takeover the green circles and make them more like the diamonds. One problem with that is that in many cases, that change would be a downgrade. But of course, the real presumption of this report is that one can take the charters of New York City and Newark, NJ and transport them onto the circles in this graph and … WHAMO…. miracle cure for the failed urban district?????

Importantly, these graphs don’t even include the likely differences in special education populations.

The bottom line is that charters are certainly no panacea for solving the woes of KCMSD. Rather, like district schools, their performance varies, around a similar average, with those serving higher poverty populations having the most difficulty.

Does Decentralized Budgeting Lead to Better Outcomes?

Next, there’s the somewhat tangential focus in this report on making sure that as much money as possible is allocated to school sites for school site control. This argument is made with full confidence that it is entirely uncontroversial that bringing control over budgets down to individual school sites can only and has only ever yielded positive outcomes. Well, if only there was actually legitimate empirical research to support that contention? Not that it’s an awful idea. But to suggest that it’s necessarily a solution is, well, a bit of… no… a huge stretch.

These same authors  have made this claim on more than one occasion, without any particular citation to support that the share of budget allocated down to school site control meaningfully improves any form of measured outcomes. As I explain here (in a critique of a report on a similar topic):

In a comprehensive review of literature on school-site management (SSM) and budgeting, Plank and Smith (2008) in the Handbook of Education Finance and Policy present mixed findings at best, pointing out that while SSM may lead to a greater sense of involvement and efficacy, it seems to result in “little direct impact on teaching behaviors or student outcomes.”

That is, it sounds good, and can feel good, but there’s little evidence to back the approach as effective or efficient. In fact, there are many reasons to question the efficiency of fully decentralized budgeting, including the increased likelihood that building level administrators and planning teams will be required to divert more of their time and effort to budget planning issues that might better be handled centrally, the reduced rate at which efficiencies might be diffused and adopted across schools, and lost efficiencies in purchasing and contracts.

The Totally Ignored Issue of Student, Employee and Taxpayer Rights

Finally, and this is a really, really big issue that the authors of this report, and others promoting similar reform strategies completely disregard.

The shift from traditional public governance of schools to mixed public/private relationships substantively alters the rights of students, employees and taxpayers. I have a forthcoming article in Emory Law Review on this topic, with coauthors Preston Green (UCONN) and Joseph Oluwole (Montclair State). In it we explain that:

*Children’s rights under school discipline policies may be treated as private contractual agreements with their provider, thus potentially forgoing many constitutional protections (including due process protections related to dismissal, protections of their right to free speech and right not to be compelled to speak, among others).

*Employees rights too may be limited, including their rights to organize as would public employees.

*And taxpayers may find increasingly that documents and information (and meetings) they perceived as publicly accessible, are not, as organizations shift key roles responsibilities under private governance in order to shield them from public disclosure.

*In a model where no true public provider exists, like the one proposed here, parents may be required to choose which rights to forgo (disclosure, discipline, etc.). This is simple bad public policy, with the worst aspect being that we are selectively reducing the rights available to our must vulnerable children and families (no-one is asking the children of Johnson County to forgo their rights in the same way).

Conclusions

While the authors of this report so confidently conclude that the obvious solution is to replace the failed urban district with an under-regulated, loosely governed confederation of benevolent non-profit actors, one might easily alternatively conclude from the evidence herein… that simply put, large scale chartering in urban centers like Kansas City simply doesn’t work. It never has and likely never will. It fails to serve the neediest children because “market forces” and accountability measures favor avoiding those children and the neighborhoods in which they live.

Further, large scale chartering leads to deprivation of important constitutional and statutory rights for children, primarily low income and minority children. Meanwhile, suburban white peers are not being asked to forgo constitutional protections in order to access elementary and secondary schooling.

Finally, large scale chartering has made far more opaque financial and governance accountability as governing institutions have created more complex private structures in order to shield their operations, records and documents from full public view.

One can only hope that this report and its aftermath have the potential to rile up Kansas City as much as Robbie Cano! (baseball)

Really miss Oklahoma Joe’s (bbq)… and Jack Stack (Martin City)

Additional Readings on Kansas City

Green III, P. C., & Baker, B. D. (2006). Urban Legends, Desegregation and School Finance: Did Kansas City Really Prove That Money Doesn’t Matter. Mich. J. Race & L., 12, 57.

Gotham, K. F. (2000). Urban space, restrictive covenants and the origins of racial residential segregation in a US city, 1900–50. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24(3), 616-633.

On School Funding Myths vs Realities

Baker, B. D., & Welner, K. G. (2011). School Finance and Courts: Does Reform Matter, and How Can We Tell?. Teachers College Record, 113(11), 2374-2414.

Baker, B.D. (2012) Revisiting the Age Old Question: Does Money Matter in Education.  Shanker Institute. http://www.shankerinstitute.org/images/doesmoneymatter_final.pdf

On Charter Schooling Myths and Miracles

Baker, B.D., Libby, K., Wiley, K. Charter School Expansion & Within District Equity: Confluence or Conflict? Education Finance and Policy

Baker, B.D. (2012). Review of “New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-ny-special-ed.

Baker, B.D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2012). Spending by the Major Charter Management Organizations: Comparing charter school and local public district financial resources in New York, Ohio, and Texas. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/spending-major-charter.

On Charter Schools and Public/Private Distinctions

Green, P.C., Baker, B.C., Oluwole, J. (in press) Having it Both Ways: How Charter Schools try to Obtain Funding of Public Schools and the Autonomy of Private Schools. Emory Law Journal

Critiques of Shoddy Work by Public Impact and Public Impact Authors

Baker, B. D. (2011). Review of “Spend Smart: Fix Our Broken School Funding System.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-spend-smart

NEPC Bernie Madoff Award Winner!

Baker, B.D. & Ferris, R. (2011). Adding Up the Spending: Fiscal Disparities and Philanthropy among New York City Charter Schools. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/NYC-charter-disparities.

See discussion of Ball State/Public Impact charter funding disparity study

Garcia, D. (2011). Review of “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-going-exponential.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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