For the 5th time in 16 years, the Kansas City Public Schools are in the market for a new superintendent. With the announcement that R. Stephen Green will be moving to Georgia, his name can be added to the list of Covington, Amato, Taylor, and Demps (and even more if we wish to look further back).
During Green’s tenure, Kansas City’s school district improved on some indicators. Unfortunately, even with this growth, in absolute terms, the district is far from where it needs to be. The graduation rate is only 67 percent. As I wrote recently, that’s better than the 50 percent it was two years ago, but it’s still well behind our regional peers. (Little Rock has a 75 percent graduation rate, and Chicago’s is 70 percent.)
Dr. Green’s departure gives the Kansas City community a chance to take a step back and think about the fundamental organization of the city’s schools. Does a centralized bureaucracy, even led by someone with great talent, have the capacity to meet the needs of every child in the city?
Look at New Orleans. Once considered home to some of the worst schools in the country, the Crescent City decentralized the operation of its schools and changed the role of city and state government to that of a funder and regulator. Since that time, the city has seen a marked improvement.
According to an article in the summer issue of the journal Education Next, in 2005, 64 percent of students in New Orleans attended a school designated as failing by the state of Louisiana. By 2015, it was only 9 percent. High school graduation rates have grown from below 50 percent to over 70 percent. What’s more, the gap between the performance of New Orleans’s schools and those in the rest of the state is closing—a more than 20 point gap among students scoring “basic” or above on state tests has shrunk to only four points. The expulsion rate is even below the state average.
The lesson from New Orleans and other cities around the country is that we should not build school systems that require a superstar at the helm in order to work. In such a system, one great superintendent can move mountains, but one bad superintendent can jeopardize everything.
If the city were to move the operation of schools to independent and autonomous organizations and limit its role on funding and regulation, it would maximize the likelihood that the system could create the number and type of schools the children of Kansas City need.
The city has already started down this path with a broad swath of charter school options, which clearly haven’t harmed the district. It’s a great time to think about expanding those options to more Kansas City families.