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Moving Kansas Schools from Monopoly to Free Choice

By   /   June 20, 2009  /   News  /   1 Comment

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Holman students participate in shared reading time.

The state-run K-12 school system in Kansas is essentially a monopoly. School choice – and the competition it brings – could improve school efficiency and quality.

Kansas spent more than $5.6 billion on K-12 education in the last school year. State and local tax collections provided 93 percent of that money but state law offers no way for taxpayers to direct even a penny of it to a school of choice, unless that school is run by the government. They can choose to send their child to a private school but they’re going to pay the state either way. For families living on a tight budget that’s no choice at all. No vouchers. No tax credits. No real choice.

There is no tuition for public charter schools. Charters are designed to be innovative public schools operating independently of the district board of education. A written charter promises certain programs or outcomes that the school must meet. Many operate successfully in economically depressed urban areas giving parents an option other than a failing traditional public school.

Kansas has 36 operating public charter schools but unlike most other states, Kansas charter schools are not truly independent. State law says they can only be authorized by school districts. That’s like Burger King having to ask McDonald’s for permission to open down the street. Even when local school districts authorize a charter school, there are obvious problems achieving the independence and educational difference charter schools are intended to offer.

Holman charter elementary

Chiquita Coggs is the executive director of the Northeast Business Association and author of the charter for the Maurice R. Holman Academy of Excellence charter school. Coggs says USD 500 Kansas City is not letting the school fulfill its charter obligations and is making Holman just like other district schools. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” Coggs said in a recent interview.

She says the district has been slow to allow the school to implement innovative curriculum promised in the school’s charter and made other important decisions without input from members of the site council. USD 500 officials are nearly doubling Holman’s enrollment for the next school year without adding any teachers. The student-to-teacher ratio will go from about 12:1 to 23:1 even though the school’s charter promises reduced class sizes. ”How can they give us the same curriculum and learning environment that exists in the rest of the district and expect us to be different?”

David Smith, a spokesperson for USD 500, says the district is working hard to provide equity and increased the school’s enrollment to the district average of 23 students per teacher. “The charter school has the opportunity, through the resources it can raise, to buy additional teachers.” Kansas  Department of Education figures say the district average is 14.7, not 23. Smith called the discrepancy “apples and oranges” but offered no further explanation.

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Holman’s principal, Earl Williams, left, meets with site council members Doug Johnson and Chiquita Coggs at Holman.

Smith faults Holman’s site council, the advisory body which reviews and advises on school policy, for not raising $200,000 to fund programs promised in the charter. Coggs admits fundraising is going slow. “I was the person who said to the school board that we’d raise those funds. I never dreamed we’d have to raise those funds with a school that looks like the rest of the schools in the district. Without the curriculum the school was designed to have it didn’t look like the school it was supposed to be.”

Earl Williams, Holman’s first principal, resigned at the end of the school year. According to Coggs, the district chose a new principle within a few hours. “We had a meeting with the assistant superintendent and made a request to have input for a new principle and we were told, ‘I’m sorry, the assignment has already been made.’ We have no input. We are an advisory group and can’t advise outside what the district says.”

“The state department of education says the charter organization should have some autonomy,” Coggs said. “The only autonomy we have is a separate location from the central district office.”

Charters offer choice but need a strong foundation

The Kansas Department of Education web site says, “Charter schools in Kansas are independent public schools that operate within a school district.” It identifies charter schools as an important tool in the effort to improve schools. “School Restructuring requires new paradigms, new models and approaches, new ways of thinking, and new educational choices.”

Kansas Board of Education member Walt Chappell sees charter schools as a way to provide more diversity in the way we educate our kids. “It’s like anything, if you have competition people will strive for excellence.”

Several national charter school organizations and federal guidelines list independence, innovation and accountability as central requirements of charters. Some even say the schools should operate under an agreement between the state and the school, free from district bureaucracy.

In spite of the problems at Holman, Coggs plans to do all she can to fulfill the school’s charter. She says the district has committed to starting the next school year with more of the curriculum promised in the school’s charter and parents are happy to have an alternative.

Doug Johnson, a member of Holman site council, says he’s encouraged about the school’s chances in spite of recent setbacks. “The district’s not really the enemy. If the law was written as in other states we’d answer directly to the state Department of Education.”

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Holman students participate in a martial arts program after school.

He says parents are still excited about Holman. “These people know the potential hasn’t been realized but they’ve latched on to the hope it will be realized. They have so little hope in the status quo.”

Johnson gets his motivation from his experience as a small business owner. He’s been in business selling o-rings since 1982.  “People come through that door for a job and I give them a simple math test. I ask them to use a ruler, do some fractional math. They can’t draw a line three and one half inches long. We’ve lost all perspective on what an education is.”

The Center for Education Reform, in its 2009 report, says charter schools nationwide are generally doing well and generally outperforming traditional public schools in spite of higher numbers of low-income students and fewer resources. “Those schools that have not performed, especially in states whose laws ensure objective oversight from independent authorizers, have been closed.”

Even failing charter schools have one big advantage over failing public schools: children aren’t trapped in a failing charter school.

The study gives Kansas a “D” grade for its, “very weak charter law” and says the majority of 10 charter school closings in the state were caused by school board politics. “From funding shortfalls to poor oversight and the imposition of bureaucratic hurdles, these charters were not given the support they needed to survive by their sponsor. In the absence of multiple authorizers and autonomy from the local school districts, the data strongly suggests that accountability in Kansas is compromised without objective oversight.”

Chappell says he’s urged the state’s board of education to look into possible conflicts between state and federal school choice laws. “We want to look at what the federal law allows and not have us locked only into state law that prohibits establishment of a charter school without local district approval.”

Private schools, a free-market alternative

Private schools offer another alternative and teach about 38,000 students in Kansas. Their parents get no refund or voucher to recover some of the taxes they pay to support public education.

“Those students are not budgeted for in Kansas. Independent schools are helping the state of Kansas with their education,” said Tom Davis, President and Headmaster of Wichita Collegiate private school. That’s nearly another half billion dollars Kansas would have to budget to educate them at the 2009 state average $12,554 per student.

Davis says, “If people had that money in their pocket to spend we think we’d be a viable option.” Collegiate’s average tuition is $11,776. Collegiate’s tuition covers 99 percent of its operating expenses. “Our tuition opens the doors.” New construction and renovation projects are underwritten by friends of the school.

When parents pay tuition directly to the school it gives them a better connection to their child’s education according to Bunny Hill, head of Collegiate’s middle school. “Our parents have a voice here. They really are partners. They feel invested directly in their school.”

“Things that create choice are good; vouchers, charter schools or something not invented yet. Where somebody gets a choice, that’s a good thing,” said Davis.

Whether it’s a child hoping for Harvard or just a way out, Hill says choice makes a difference in the child’s perspective on education. “Somebody in their life said, ‘We’ve got a dream for you.’ That’s very different from typical urban schools in this country. It doesn’t matter how much money is thrown at the problem, the focus isn’t set.”

Davis noted that striving for quality isn’t just about more money. Quality has to be moderated by financial realities when a school operates in a free market. “We live in a market so we have to have a valuable product. Our customers get an invoice. We have to live within a budget, have to make tough choices,” Davis said.

One of those choices is not seeking institutional accreditations that attach unwanted strings.

“Our graduates are our accreditation,” said Davis. “It’s our choice not to be accredited, not to be encumbered.” One hundred percent of Collegiate’s students graduate and go on to college, half to the top 100 colleges in the U.S.

The school also shuns state certification for its teachers. “Some of our greatest teachers have never been certified but they came with a passion and a genius they’re able to share with their students. They spent their time learning the subject,” said Hill.

Davis said Collegiate doesn’t offer tenure to its teachers. “We hire and retain teachers based on merit. Job security at Wichita Collegiate School comes from continuing to be the excellent teacher that Collegiate expects you to be.”

“We hire teachers because they want to do an excellent job,” Hill added. “We trust teachers to engage our students and teach them.”

A May 2009 study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice reported private school teachers were more likely to say they will continue teaching as long as they are able (62 percent v. 44 percent), while public school teachers are much more likely to say they’ll leave teaching as soon as they are eligible for retirement (33 percent v. 12 percent) and that they would immediately leave teaching if a higher paying job were available (20 percent v. 12 percent).

The study also reported private school teachers say they have more control or influence over text and curriculum choices, performance standards, discipline policy and that they have all the textbooks and supplies they need. Public school teachers, according to the study, are twice as likely as private school teachers to say the stress and disappointments aren’t really worth it and it’s a waste of time to try to do their best.

Hill recognizes important differences between public and private schools. “We do not face the problems the Wichita school system faces every day. We admit students who can handle this accelerated program.” But she also points out that there are students who can handle higher-level academics who don’t get the opportunity through public schools.

Choice through vouchers

Vouchers can help low- to moderate-income families provide better options for their students and enhance competition.

Davis says vouchers can help broaden school choice options for more parents but worries about vouchers with too many strings attached “It would depend on the structure. If it’s just a check with no encumbrances… A tax credit would be better; that way you could pick wherever you went.” Davis worries that vouchers in some states only pay for state-accredited schools.

“School vouchers are by far the best-proven way to fix public schools,” according to the Friedman Foundation study. “Over thirty years of intensive, extremely expensive efforts to reform the government school system from within have produced no change in academic outcomes. By contrast, a large body of empirical evidence consistently shows that public schools improve when exposed to vouchers, because vouchers break the government monopoly and introduce healthy competition. Schools in the private sector, unlike public schools, must provide a good education or else lose students.”

The battle for school choice in Kansas

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Principal Williams and a student head to the bus for a field trip from Holman.

State Senator Steve Abrams says the state legislature isn’t doing much about school choice. “There are individuals who would like to do something but there’s not enough momentum to get anything of substance done.”

He says real school choice and career technical education would make a vast improvement in Kansas. “Even if we could just get a real charter school law like they have in other states.”

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt agrees that there isn’t much action in the legislature on school choice. “We’ve had very few debates about the public versus private, charter school or some type of tuition assistance since I’ve served. It’s too bad because education is such an art. There’s no one size that fits all. We should have a variety of options but you don’t get there without some discussion.”

Schmidt says it’ll take leadership to get something on the agenda. Abrams says there’s strong opposition from the National Education Association and other groups opposed to school choice.

A June 5, 2008, questionnaire prepared by the Kansas NEA encouraged candidates for the Kansas legislature to agree with their positions on school choice. Those positions include:

  • Opposition to spending limits
  • Opposition to private school vouchers or tuition tax credits
  • Opposition to constitutional amendments that limit the Courts’ ability to issue remedies on school finance legislation
  • Support for additional funding increases for public education
  • Opposition to anything that weakens collective bargaining by the teachers’ union or encourages bonus or incentive pay
  • Opposition to a changes from a defined benefit to a defined contribution retirement system for teachers
  • Opposition to changes in teacher tenure rules

Abrams says legislators respond to their constituents. “If enough people call in or are asking for true choice or better charter legislation, something would happen. There’d be a political battle. The other side would gin it up and the battle lines would be drawn.”

Allies for choice

Economic realities and exposure to options can turn opponents into allies. For 28 years Gary Price was a school district superintendent in Kansas on the front lines against school choice and for ever-increasing dollars for Kansas schools.

Today he is executive director of Insight School of Kansas, a virtual charter school in Spring HIll using computers and internet connections to connect teachers and about 500 ninth to 12th grade students from across the state. Insight just finished its first year in Kansas.

“Initially we got a fair amount of opposition form superintendents who thought we were going to steal their kids. That diminished significantly when they saw that 80 percent of our kids weren’t in school last year,” he said. A large number of Insights students had dropped out of traditional public school. “There have been some who migrated out of traditional schools because they weren’t being well served.”

Price says two thirds of his school’s students come from urban districts in Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita. The rest are scattered around the state. Two thirds are traditional high school age students and the rest are over 19. Some students are pursuing a specific academic goal not supported in traditional slchools. Some didn’t fit in socially because of bullying or other issues and some just couldn’t fit a regular school schedule into their plans. Two current students are on the professional rodeo circuit.

Insight collects $4,600 annually from the state for each full-time virtual student. That’s almost $8,000 less than the state average for each student enrolled in traditional public schools.

Insight and similar programs for middle and elementary students offer choices not just for students but also for school districts. Small or rural schools often don’t have the variety of classes larger urban districts offer because of budget constraints or availability of teachers.

Price has also offered classes for individual students or whole classes at any district in Kansas. “You provide the computer and we’ll provide the instruction and the teacher.” Insight’s costs and fees are considerably lower than the costs for traditional schools. A one-semester class is $310 per student and $435 for a full-year class per student. “They can make money on this,” Price said. Districts collect the state’s per-pupil funding minus Insight’s fee.

Price knows public schools will always be the most important piece of K-12 education in Kansas but he’s become a big believer in school choice. “I think choice is a big plus. We are better when we compete. We work harder when we try to get the best.”

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Paul formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.