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Education

New Board Members Say Kansas City Schools ‘Made Some Strides,’ Just Not Fast Enough

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Courtesy of the Ford and Buckner campaigns
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Tanesha Ford, left, is the executive director of the Kauffman Scholars program. Kandace Buckner is a teaching coach for the Kansas City Teacher Residency.

Newly-elected school board members Tanesha Ford and Kandace Buckner campaigned as Black moms and educators ready to fight for students and families.

Two new Kansas City Public Schools board members say that Mark Bedell is the right superintendent to lead the district, but student achievement isn't improving fast enough.

Tanesha Ford and Kandace Buckner were seated last week after prevailing in the April 6 election. The nonprofit Black Leaders Advancing Quality Urban Education, or BLAQUE, spent nearly $70,000 promoting the two women as candidates for change, a huge infusion of cash that helped Ford oust board president Pattie Mansur from her at-large seat.

“We’ve made some strides over the last few years with Dr. Bedell,” Ford told KCUR’s Steve Kraske on Up To Date on Thursday. “I think that he’s incredible. The word that I’ve heard from his cabinet over the last few months of my campaign is figuring out how to accelerate learning for our students.”

KCPS has been provisionally accredited for several years now. Many hoped this would be the year the district regained full accreditation, but the pandemic kept Missouri students from taking state tests last year, postponing a lot of those decisions.

Ford, the executive director of the Kauffman Scholars program, said it would take time to dismantle centuries of systemic inequality and improve urban education for students of color.

“But I think we need to make sure that even in realizing that it may take some time, we are being as aggressive as possible, even though I hate that word,” Ford said. “We need to make sure... in every policy and in every initiative, they are the center of our conversation.”

Buckner, a teaching coach with the Kansas City Teacher Residency, also pushed back against descriptions of her and Ford's agenda as “aggressive” or “radical."

“(Tanesha and I) really rang the alarm on student achievement. Before, there really wasn’t a strong focus on how our kids are performing or a sense of urgency around that,” said Bucker, who represents Sub-district 5 in the southeast part of the district. “I think because that’s been a huge pillar in my campaign, it’s perceived as really aggressive, but it’s really just Kandace saying, ‘This is something that needs attention.’”

Ford added that words like "aggressive" or "angry" are all terms leveled at Black women to silence their viewpoints. Buckner and Ford are Black, while the school board members they replaced are white.

Buckner said she’d like to see the board and the district improve communication with families, the majority of whom are Black or Latino.

“I think there has been historically a culture of, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing,’ and the expectation that parents come to us," Buckner said. "We need to shift that culture a little bit and actually go to our parents so that it’s convenient."

Buckner describes herself as an advocate for public schools like KCPS. However, half of the students living in the district's boundaries attend charters, which are public schools with their own governance structure.

“One thing I’ve said over and over is, charter schools are not going anywhere. I do not believe we need any more charter schools," Buckner said. "I think charter schools need to be held accountable just like the district does.

She added that a lot of Kansas City students are highly transient and move between district and charter schools.

“It’s important that we’re collaborating with our charter schools because the reality is, this is a Kansas City public school system," Buckner said.

One longstanding challenge for KCPS is that these individual schools don’t operate as a system, and often compete for students and resources. Advocates for the district are worried about money that poured into the school board election from school choice proponents — BLAQUE gets funding from SchoolSmart KC, which in turn gets money from the Kauffman and Hall foundations.

Ford said she wouldn’t speculate on the money trail.

“Any conversations about funding from BLAQUE need to be directed to the leaders of that organization because I don’t have any certainty about where they get their funding,” Ford said.

In addition to the new board members, voters re-elected Rita Cortes and Manny Abarca.

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