The state of Missouri is locked in debate on the future of the long-ailing Kansas City Public Schools, mulling over a number of different proposals to improve schools. But to read local media reports and talk to close observers in the state’s largest city, there’s really only one plan: a proposal that would wrest direct control of all 34 Kansas City Schools from the district and hand over management to charter operators and nonprofits.

It’s a plan that radically shifts control of per-pupil dollars to the people running schools, leaving the central office with a few basic functions and the role of monitoring the progress of independent schools and holding them accountable for their performance. Proponents call it a long-overdue attempt to change a failing district by injecting tougher standards, real enforcement mechanisms and greater freedom into the district. Critics say a decentralized system isn’t the answer in a district where 36 percent of its 26,000 students already attend charter schools, which operate under their own boards but receive public money. 

In Missouri, school districts have to meet nine of 14 performance standards on annual reports to maintain accreditation and six for provisional status. An unaccredited district has to pay tuition costs for students who are then free to transfer to accredited districts. Kansas City lost accreditation in 2011 and is fighting for provisional status through the courts and in the classroom, hoping to show enough improvement this year to beat back a state takeover.

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro wants to recommend one of several plans to the state board in mid-February to allow time for a vote and implementation, but the Kansas City Star has hinted that consulting firm Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust has been the clear favorite, based on communications between officials and CEE-Trust leadership underway well before the firm received $385,000 to deliver a proposal. 

CEE-Trust is a pro-charter advocacy organization with 33 affiliates in 23 cities. The Missouri plan’s major initiatives mirror those of a December 2011 proposal from an Indianapolis affiliate that failed to win the approval of the Indiana state school board. If Missouri’s state school board adopted the plan, the state would dissolve the local school board and create a smaller district office headed by an appointee of the commissioner of education. The new state office would still handle transportation and some administrative functions, but its chief role would be evaluating and managing contracts from independent school operators, whether national charter lines, community groups or local educators who form a nonprofit.  That decentralization would mean principals would control about $10,000 per pupil compared with about $800 today, the report concludes, and on top of that the system could afford to fund city-wide pre-kindergarten.  “When educators are controlling $10,000 per student there’s an enormous opportunity in those schools,” said Ethan Gray, the CEO and founder of CEE-Trust. “In the final draft of our report in the next two or three weeks we are actually going to do a model school budget to show what’s possible. You can lower class sizes, increase pay and extend the school day with this budget.” 

Every school in the district would have to reapply to what’s called the Community Schools Office as a nonprofit with a full educational plan and standards to meet. Those that couldn’t find independent operators would remain under the authority of a separate transitional office that has total power over staffing and acts more like a traditional district but with the goal of making a school more attractive to an independent operator. 

Gray’s report points to a number of nationally known charter school organizations, such as Uncommon Schools, and city initiatives in New Orleans and New York City as examples of successful reform that Kansas City’s new model could foster. The problem with Missouri’s charter-school policy now, Gray says, is the challenge of actually revoking a charter for bad performance or actively monitoring schools. Such challenges have kept many ineffective charters open in Kansas City, he argues. 

But critics find fault with the examples, arguing the link between New Orleans’ revival and its rapid transition to greater individual autonomy is shaky at best and charter schools unfairly inflate achievement by covering up high student turnover and serving less demanding populations. Newark’s North Star Academy, for example, which is run by Uncommon Schools, may beat city-wide averages, but it loses half of its students between grades five through 12, it serves half the percentage of students with disabilities and 15 percent fewer of its students are in poverty, notes Bruce Baker, a professor of education finance at Rutgers University.  

“We don’t have evidence that chartering--that this kind of quasi-independent structure--in and of itself leads to improved productivity or efficiency,” he said in an interview. That’s not to mention concerns about due process rights of students and access to public records in a district that’s entirely run by private entities, he added. 

For Jan Parks of Kansas City’s Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, the problem with CEE-Trust’s plan is that it’s essentially irreversible, and turnover among school operators will lead to chaotic churning of student populations. “As they transition to these nonprofit groups, if they’re not good and they’re disbanded we have a question of what happens to the kids in the meantime?” she said.  

But others in Kansas City see the plan as its only chance for substantive change—even if they still harbor reservations about how it will play out. Ajamu Webster is a civil engineer who has long served on various advisory committees and chaired the governing board of an African-centered school. He said the concept works, but the state needs to ensure that contracts with independent operators allow enough time to show progress and the Community Schools Office takes steps to ensure locals aren’t pushed out of contention by large charter-school lines. 

“It’s substantially better than the alternative, calling (the district) provisional and seeing what happens in the next two or three years, because I don’t have any faith we’ll make any substantial change, based on the history of the district,” he said. Given the political pressure on Nicastro to back off the plan, though, its adoption is far from certain, Webster said.  “They’ll be off the hook, but the students and the parents will be left hanging,” he said.