February 19, 2014

Ethan Gray Guest Post: Kansas City Power Politics

By Bellwether

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Ethan Gray is CEO of the CEE-Trust and someone I’ve known since he was a graduate student and Ted Sizer told me I should hire him (he was right).  CEE-Trust (an organization that Bellwether provided strategic advice to as it was organizing) is working with the state of Missouri on school improvement work there – with a focus on the Kansas City Schools. Not surprisingly the debate is contentious and below Ethan lays out in a guest post his take on what’s going on:

Earlier this year my organization CEE-Trust was tasked by the Missouri Board of Education to develop a plan to transform failed school districts with a special emphasis on Kansas City Public Schools. For context, KCPS is a system where 70 percent of students are below proficient and the average ACT score is a tick above 16. You can read our executive summary for a detailed overview of the plan.

Earlier this week, we released an open letter to KCPS teachers because, as we say in the letter, “those who benefit by keeping the current system in place have consistently misrepresented our beliefs and what our plan would mean” for the district’s teachers.

During our research phase, our first focus group was with the Kansas City Federation of Teachers. We were surprised when we arrived at union headquarters and saw an inaccurate American Federation of Teachers anti-CEE-Trust flier sitting on the waiting room table.

Around Christmas, before a draft of the plan had even come out, union leaders organized a public event to sing anti-CEE-Trust Christmas carols, falsely accusing us of wanting to privatize the district. Then, when the report draft came out, they put a page on their website with misleading anti-CEE-Trust talking points.

What has genuinely struck me about Kansas City is the extent to which power politics have obscured an honest debate of ideas, despite the common ground between our proposal and what teachers told us they wanted.

For example, teachers told us they wanted more autonomy, better pay, universal pre-k, and the budgetary flexibility to provide wrap around services to better meet the needs of students living in poverty. We were able to address all of those priorities in our plan.

Under our plan, educators run schools and make all key programmatic decisions at the school level, while the system focuses on accountability and a few common services.

Unlike those who want to charter-ize everything, we maintain a central system because it helps guarantee equity and access. Our system sets common enrollment and expulsion policies, ensuring that schools serve all students – especially those who charters have sometimes neglected or counseled out. Our system also provides universal pre-k and citywide transportation.

We preserve collective bargaining rights but shift them to the school level since the district no longer employs teachers directly. Yes, that makes unions work harder to organize. But what is more important, maintaining a one-size-fits-all contract or successfully addressing other important teacher priorities like pay, working conditions, and autonomy?

For example, our plan’s Appendix C shows that a sample elementary school could increase average teacher pay by 20 percent; lower class sizes by 20 percent from state guidelines; hire a full time social worker and part time nurse; hire art, music, and PE teachers; and still have money left over to purchase additional wrap around services. It is possible to meet all of the teachers’ priorities while staying within the budget of the current system.

Take a look at our plan, then take a look at this page from the AFT’s website. We could have put most of that page in the middle of our report and it would have fit right in. Unfortunately, rather then see common ground, interest groups have retreated to their political talking points, even when they don’t fit the actual debate.

We’ve developed a plan for a school system that empowers educators and pays them more, gives parents more meaningful choices, and provides pre-k and wrap around services to address the issues of poverty. We believe that such a school system better meets teachers’ needs and will produce vastly better results for children.

Yet we’ve been opposed at every turn by groups that would benefit under our proposals. Unfortunately, the debate in Kansas City has been shaped more by fear mongering and conspiracy theories than the free exchange of ideas. That’s too bad, because if one thing is clear, it’s that our cities are in desperate need of strategies that can make teaching more attractive and sustainable, while delivering better results for students than the current top-down districts of today.

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