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The Data Shows Kansas City's School System Is Complicated, Segregated And Inefficient

Ray Weikal
Kansas City Public Schools
Kansas City Public Schools educates about half of the public school students living in the district. The other half attend charter schools

Both traditional public schools and charters in Kansas City are increasingly segregated, expensive to run and losing high school students, according to a new report from the Kansas City Public Schools.

KCPS is calling it a “system” analysis because it looks at charter schools as well. (Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of KCPS.) Think of it as a snapshot of 20 years of education choice in Kansas City.

“What we really want is for the community to unify behind a vision – not multiple visions – of what a successful education system looks like,” said Mike Reynolds, chief research and accountability officer for the school district. “There have been too many different methodologies for determining success and failure.”

Reynolds said the response has been mostly positive as the district has shared its findings with the charter school community.

Here are the big takeaways – as well as how the system analysis could help shape the conversation about public education in Kansas City.

The school system is more segregated today than it was in the 1990s.

The year before charters started opening in Kansas City in 1999, 32 of the district’s 65 schools, not including seven majority-white schools in Independence, were segregated. By 2017, 78 percent of schools in the system were segregated – 25 district schools and 30 charter schools. (KCPS did not include in its original count the seven majority-white schools because they were annexed by Independence in 2007 and did not qualify as segregated anyway.)

KCPS used the same definition of segregation as the U.S. Government Accountability Office – any school where more than 75% of students receive free or reduced price lunch and more than 75% of students are black or Hispanic. The number of “intensely” segregated schools also increased – schools where more than 90% of students are poor and more than 90% of students are black or Hispanic. In 1999, just six schools were intensely segregated. In 2017, 27 schools – 10 district, 17 charter – were intensely segregated.

Credit Kansas City Public Schools

That’s partially because white families continue to opt out of the system. Only 10% of students in public schools in Kansas City are white, and about half of them attend just seven schools – Academie Lafayette, Crossroads, Quality Hill, Citizens of the World, Border Star, Hale Cook and Lincoln College Prep. In 2017, nearly a quarter of the white students enrolled in the Kansas City system went to Academie Lafayette, a school that captures just 3.5% of the public school students.

Hale Cook, in Waldo, is the only KCPS neighborhood school where a majority of students are white.

Charter schools aren’t opening in the neighborhoods that need better schools.

Credit Kansas City Public Schools

KCPS estimates schools have seats for about 33,500 students system-wide. (It’s an estimate because the district doesn’t know the exact capacity of all the charter schools.) Only 31% of students in the system live in the nine zip codes that make up the Central and Southwest planning zones – an area that includes the Crossroads, Midtown, Brookside and Waldo – but half of all seats are in that part of the city.

Meanwhile, there aren’t enough seats for students who live in the North, East and Southeast attendance zones. And school quality lags, particularly in the Southeast, where only a quarter of schools in the system are accredited. (To be clear, the state doesn’t accredit individual schools, but KCPS used building APR – that is, the Annual Performance Report score from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education – as a proxy for school quality.)

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a pro-charter think tank, reached a similar conclusion in a report it put out last year about charter school “deserts” – high-poverty zip codes where there aren’t any charter schools. In Kansas City, there are more charter schools in in middle-income neighborhoods. Troost Avenue wasn’t labeled, but it was easy to see the enduring history of residential segregation in where schools were located.

Credit Kansas City Public Schools

Expect the district to push back against plans to locate new schools, particularly high schools, in the Southwest attendance zone, which has twice as many seats as students. KCPS has already passed on a proposal to reopen Southwest High School as a district-sponsored charter.

Black enrollment is declining, while Latino enrollment is growing.

Both district and charter schools are still majority black, but black families are leaving the city for education opportunities elsewhere, particularly the suburbs. The population with KCPS boundaries fell 10% between 2000 and 2015, but the number of black school-aged children plummeted 42%. Over the same time period, the number of school-aged Latino children increased 124%. Today, one in every four students in the Kansas City system is Latino.

Credit Kansas City Public Schools

As the number of Latino students has increased, so too has the number of students with limited English proficiency. About 25% of KCPS students have limited English proficiency, compared to 19% of charter school students. More than three-quarters of the charter students who are English language learners are concentrated at just four schools – Alta Vista, Scoula Vita Nuova, Kansas City International Academy and Frontier.

Operating so many schools is costly.

System-wide, schools in Kansas City spend a lot on administration, transportation and overhead – $80.2 million more than the comparably sized Springfield, Missouri, Public School District, according to the KCPS analysis. In 2017, the Kansas City system had 26,520 students in 83 schools, with an average per pupil expenditure of $14,234. Springfield had 25,780 students in 53 schools, with an average per pupil expenditure of $9,323.

The system analysis argues that choice creates inefficiencies. In Kansas City, there’s a critical shortage of bus drivers, yet four or five buses will roll down the same street to take kids to different schools. As a result, Kansas City spends two and a half times as much as Springfield does on transportation.

Credit Ray Weikal / Kansas City Public Schools
Kansas City Public Schools
KCPS runs multiple bus routes to get kids to neighborhood schools nearby as well as district magnet schools.

That’s something KCPS would like to change. When the district entered negotiations with a new bus company earlier this year, they also helped several charter schools reach an agreement with Student Transportation of America.

"The busing example comes up a lot because busing is really expensive," localeducation blogger Rebecca Haessig told KCUR last month. "And while it's true that every dollar spent on busing isn't being spent in the classroom, when we get too caught up talking about economies of scale, what we lose is that education is about students, and not all students are the same."

So expect charter school advocates to push back on the efficiency argument. They'll also probably dispute some of the district's financial analysis as they lobby state lawmakers to change the foundation formula. The Missouri Charter Public School Association estimates that charter schools miss out on about $2,000 per pupil from local property tax revenue. Locally, KCPS puts that amount closer to $300 because the district isn’t actually able to collect all the money it’s allocated.

So many different grade configurations make it hard to move through the system.

In Kansas City, there are K-4 schools, K-8 schools, schools that stop in sixth grade, separate middle schools and combined high schools. Because so many schools in the system lack a defined “feeder” pattern – that is, a clear path from elementary school to middle school to high school – families have to keep making choices as their children progress through the system.

Complicating matters still further, there are a lot of schools that only take students in certain grades, such as kindergarten (for elementary schools) or fifth grade (for middle schools). Other schools don’t “backfill” empty seats with new students as others leave.

Leslie Kohlmeyer is director of programs for Show Me KC Schools, a nonprofit that helps families understand their school options.

“If you look at the charters, (a lot of them) are feeding directly into themselves,” Kohlmeyer said. “Crossroads had zero ninth grade seats available this year. No one could come in from outside. University Academy had around 10 for nearly 100 applicants. The same situation at Hogan. Frontier, same thing. Kauffman, zero for ninth grade.”

Families leave because they don’t like their high school options.

Credit Kansas City Public Schools

Public schools in Kansas City lose nearly half of all students between kindergarten and 12th grade. Among KCPS students who leave, 52% transfer to another public school district or a private school. Among the charter students who leave, 55% transfer to a school outside of the system. Between 2014 and 2017, transfers out of charters into the surrounding suburban schools increased 88%.

Credit Kansas City Public Schools

That leaves about 6,000 students in 15 system high schools. KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell often complains that he can’t provide students with a complete high school experience – academic, athletics and activities – because each cohort is so small. He’s made bringing back sports to schools like East one of his top priorities, pointing out that Springfield is spending almost twice as much per pupil on extracurricular activities as schools here do.

Are there too many schools in Kansas City? The system analysis stops just short of making that argument. But as more charter schools open – and invariably close – expect district officials to point out the impact on kids and families.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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