Archives for category: Kansas City

Jeff Bryant writes here about the billionaires who corrupted the school leadership pipeline. Chief among them, of course, is billionaire Eli Broad, who created an unaccredited training program as a fast track for urban superintendents.

Bryant has collected stories about how superintendents who passed through the Broad program hire other graduates of the program and do business with others who are part of their network. The ethical breaches are numerous. The self-dealing and the stench of corruption is powerful.

Bryant begins with the story of a phone call from Eli Broad to one of his graduates:

It’s rare when goings-on in Kansas City schools make national headlines, but in 2011 the New York Times reported on the sudden departure of the district’s superintendent John Covington, who resigned unexpectedly with only a 30-day notice. Covington, who had promised to “transform” the long-troubled district, “looked like a silver bullet” for all the district’s woes, according to the Los Angeles Times. He had, in a little more than two years, quickly set about remaking the district’s administrative staff, closing nearly half the schools, revamping curriculum, and firing teachers while hiring Teach for America recruits.

The story of Covington’s sudden departure caught the attention of coastal papers no doubt because it perpetuated a common media narrative about hard-charging school leaders becoming victims of school districts’ supposed resistance to change and the notoriously short tenures of superintendents.

Although there may be some truth to that narrative, the main reason Covington left Kansas City was not because he was pushed out by job stress or an obstinate resistance. He left because a rich man offered him a job.

Following the reporting by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times about Covington’s unexpected resignation, news emerged from the Kansas City Star that days after he resigned, he took a position as the first chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a new state agency that, according to Michigan Radio, sought “radical” leadership to oversee low-performing schools in Detroit.

But at the time of Covington’s departure, it seemed no outlet could have described the exact circumstances under which he was lured away. That would come out years later in the Kansas City Star where reporter Joe Robertson described a conversation with Covington in which he admitted that squabbles with board members “had nothing to do” with his departure. What caused Covington’s exit, Robertson reported, was “a phone call from Spain.”

That call, Covington told Robertson, was what led to Covington’s departure from Kansas City—because it brought a message from billionaire philanthropist and major charter school booster Eli Broad. “John,” Broad reportedly said, “I need you to go to Detroit.”

It wasn’t the first time Covington, who was a 2008 graduate of a prestigious training academy funded through Broad’s foundation (the Broad Center), had come into contact with the billionaire’s name and clout. Broad was also the most significant private funder of the new Michigan program he summoned Covington to oversee, providing more than $6 million in funding from 2011 to 2013, according to the Detroit Free Press.

But Covington’s story is more than a single instance of a school leader doing a billionaire’s bidding. It sheds light on how decades of a school reform movement, financed by Broad and other philanthropists and embraced by politicians and policymakers of all political stripes, have shaped school leadership nationwide.

Charter advocates and funders—such as Broad, Bill Gates, some members of the Walton Family Foundation, John Chubb, and others who fought strongly for schools to adopt the management practices of private businesses—helped put into place a school leadership network whose members are very accomplished in advancing their own careers and the interests of private businesses while they rankle school boards, parents, and teachers.

Covington’s tenure at the Education Achievement Authority in Michigan was a disaster, and the EAA itself was a disaster that has been closed down.

Bryant compares the Broad superintendents to a cartel.

The actions of these leaders are often disruptive to communities, as school board members chafe at having their work undermined, teachers feel increasingly removed from decision making, and local citizens grow anxious at seeing their taxpayer dollars increasingly redirected out of schools and classrooms and into businesses whose products and services are of questionable value.

In fact, Broad superintendents have a very poor track record. They excel at disruption and alienating parents and teachers by their autocratic style. Despite their boasts, they don’t know how to improve education. They are not even skilled at management.

What they do best is advance themselves and make lucrative connections with related businesses owned by Broadie cronies.

You read that right. Kansas is a state that has cut taxes and cut its education budget repeatedly and whose teachers are paid poorly. It is under court order to finance its schools adequately. You may recall that former Governor Sam Brownback imposed a far-right policy of cutting taxes to “grow the economy” while starving the schools and other public services. The experiment failed. Trump appointed him the
“Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.”

So now, because of low salaries, Kansas has teacher shortages. The remedy? A lavish contract with TFA to bring in temp teachers.

The Kansas Legislature agreed to pay education nonprofit Teach For America more than $500,000 this year for a pilot program to recruit 12 teachers to the state.

But the national organization only recruited three teachers for the state in 2018. All of them were placed in Kansas City, Kansas, where the local school district pays their salaries and benefits on top of another $3,000 per teacher per year to Teach For America.

Meanwhile, the state is still on the hook to pay the nonprofit $270,000 for training and recruiting teachers with no guarantee they will work in Kansas schools.

Mischel Miller, director of teacher licensure and accreditation at the Kansas State Department of Education, said the contract was intended to help fill a teacher shortage in the state.

“Our intention,” Miller said in an interview, “is that those dollars would be used for Kansas teachers.”

Yet the Kansas City, Kansas school district says it only hired three Teach For America instructors this year. Two other recruits started teaching in the district last year before Kansas hired the organization.

The state education department says Teach For America told the department it recruited all five of those teachers this year. The department is currently drafting a $270,000 contract to pay the organization.

A budget document from the Kansas Legislative Research Department dated Oct. 10 states, “Teachers will be paid a salary of $36,000.” But that money actually goes just to recruiting, training and placing each teacher.

That totals $180,000 from the state for recruiting five teachers, plus $80,000 to pay for the salary, benefits and travel expenses of a recruiter and $10,000 for one day of professional development. The rest of the money appropriated during the legislative session, totaling $250,000, will go back to the state’s general fund to be appropriated for the next fiscal year.

Tom Ultican has been chronicling the advance of the DPE (Destroy Public Education) Movement. He attended the recent conference of the Network for Public Education, where he heard from leaders of the Kansas City (Missouri) school district and realized that it was suffering from the DPE strategy.

He wrote this post about the deliberate and heedless destruction of what was once a vibrant school district.

The city and the school district were, to begin with, victimized by white flight. Subsidized by federal housing policies, whites abandoned the city. Responding to a court order, the state poured huge sums into magnet schools in hopes of luring white students back, but it didn’t work.

Then the DPE moved in, like vultures, to feast on the carcass of the remaining public schools.

Ultican describes the rapid turnover in leaders, beginning with John Covington, who was placed in Kansas City by Eli Broad. Covington closed numerous schools to make way for school choice and charters. He didn’t stay long, however, because he got a call from the Great Eli himself, telling him to go to Detroit to run the Education Achievement Authority. That was a massive and costly failure.

At present, as he shows (based on the presentation of state data at NPE), the Kansas City school district has only 14,216 students. The charter in the districts, each of them considered a “school district,” has almost as many students. There are currently 20 (20!) separate local education agencies operating in what was once the Kansas City school district (each charter is its own local education agency). Twenty school districts competing for students.

This is expensive, as he shows. The Kansas City district spends more than double what is spent in the similar-size Springfield, Mo., district.

A sad footnote to this tale of harm inflicted on children and public schools is that much of it is funded by the local Kauffman foundation, whose namesake would likely be appalled to see what is being done with the money he left behind:

Ewing Marion Kauffman was a graduate of public schools. Before his death in 1993 he spent money and time promoting public schools. He was an eagle scout and he established the Kansas City Royal baseball team. He would undoubtedly hate the idea that the $2 billion foundation he established is now being used to undermine public education in his city.

Kauffman Foundation money was used to bring CEE-Trust to Kansas City. It was a Bill Gates funded spin off from Indianapolis’s proto-type privatizing organization The Mind Trust. The CEE-Trust mandate was to implement the portfolio theory of education reform. When local’s got wind of a backroom deal that had given CEE-Trust a $385,000 state contract to create a plan for KCPS things went south. A 2017 Chalkbeat Article says, “In 2013, a plan to reshape Kansas City’s schools was essentially run out of town.” It became so bad that CEE-Trust changed its name to Education Cities.

Now the same local-national money combination is funding a new group, SmartschoolKC, with the same portfolio district agenda. The new collaboration is funded by the Kauffman Foundation, the Hall Family Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

The portfolio model posits treating schools like stock holdings and trimming the failures by privatizing them or closing them. The instrument for measuring failure is the wholly inappropriate standardized test. This model inevitably leads to an ever more privatized system that strips parents and taxpayers of their democratic rights. Objections to the portfolio model include:

It creates constant churn and disruption. The last thing students in struggling neighborhoods need is more uncertainty.

Democratically operated schools in a community are the foundation of American democracy. Promoters of the portfolio model reject the civic value of these democracy incubators.
Parents and taxpayer no longer have an elected board that they can hold accountable for school operations.

Peter Greene is now writing on a regular basis for Forbes magazine, an absolutely splendid setting for his brilliant work.

In his latest article, he tells the sad story of Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1964, it had 77,000 students.

When the order came to desegregate the district, white families fled the city’s system, and in an unusual and controversial move, the system tried to meet its desegregation goals by luring those white students back with an array of shiny special programs rather than investing in a more solid base. Just before the turn of the century, Missouri okayed charter schools, but only for urban areas (meaning Kansas City and St. Louis). Since then, a portion of the district has been annexed and the district suffered under a Broad-trained superintendent (and his abrupt departure). Today there are 14,216 students in the public school system, and 12,468 in the various charters operating in the city.

Now, Kansas City is struggling to figure out how to co-exist with the charters. Dr. Mark Befell, the superintendent, is trying to figure out how to create a new ecosystem.

The proliferation of charters in Kansas City has also created a system that is difficult for families to navigate. Charter schools present a wide variety of grade ranges including K-6, K-4, 6-12 and, most improbably, 5-11. Parents have to figure out how to navigate their child through all thirteen grades while factoring in programs, location, and whether or not the charter will admit students in the school’s higher grades (a charter that doesn’t “backfill” may cover grades K-6, but will not accept students in the higher grades even if the school has empty seats). A student can ending up switching school systems multiple times in her educational career.

Unregulated charters have made a mess out of the Kansas City ecosystem, but Bedell is looking to clean it up. The school district has a unique opportunity. Charters in Missouri can be sponsored by a university, a school district, or the state’s charter school commission, and one of Kansas City’s major sponsors is getting out of the business, leaving eight charters in search of a sponsor. The state commission wants them, but so does the public system.

As in other districts, the question is whether and how the public schools can survive the charter invasion.

As this article by Matt Barnum in Chalkbeat shows, Kansas City did not want to hand its public schools over to the corporate reform movement, and it kicked out the privatizers a few years ago.

But the privatizers are back, with a new name, and a local native-born leader touting the virtues of the “portfolio model” and a “common enrollment application” for public schools and charter schools. The new approach is funded by the privatization-loving Walton Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation. OneApp, the common enrollment system is intended to confuse parents about the differences between public schools and charter schools, and give the appearance that they are the same. They are not. Charter schools choose their students; public schools do not. Charter schools may close without warning; public schools do not. Charter schools are not willing to take the students with the greatest needs; public schools are required to do so.

And so far, many education leaders in Kansas City seem to have fallen for the “portfolio model,” which is a stealth way of importing privatization.

The Kansas City superintendent, Mark Befell, is approaching the new bait warily. But the stars are aligning to put Kansas City into the grasp of the privatizers.

Bedell, the district superintendent, says that SchoolSmart may be too focused on creating new schools and expanding successful ones at the expense of helping existing, low-performing schools.

“I think the only concern that I have is their initial focus has been primarily on schools that are emerging, schools that are high performing,” he said. “You want to really move an urban school system like ours, you have a larger share of your schools that are low performing, we need to put resources in those schools.”

But, Bedell said, “Fortunately, [Sufi] listened to that and [SchoolSmart] provided support for me and some of my schools that have been struggling.”

SchoolSmart KC has also promoted the idea of a common enrollment system for district and charter schools.

“Participation in common, unified enrollment systems must also be required so that all families have equal access to schools,” Sufi said in recent testimony to the Missouri state legislature. “Such a system will also promote equity where our least advantaged families have equal access to quality options.”

Bedell is skeptical of this idea.

“Nope, not interested in it,” he said flatly, saying that he believed some charter schools were selectively enrolling and pushing out certain students, which made it difficult to build a positive relationship between the two sectors.

“One of the things that we’re looking to do is go and visit some of the other cities — Denver, Indianapolis, Camden — where the [district–charter] partnerships are working well,” said Bedell. Incidentally, those are three cities often promoted by advocates of the portfolio model.

Meanwhile, some remain wary of who is funding SchoolSmart. In addition to local philanthropies, SchoolSmart identifies the Walton Foundation as one of its core investors. Sufi said Hall, Kaufman, and Walton had together made a 10-year funding commitment of over $50 million.

“Philanthropy can have its own agenda too — that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think everybody just needs to be aware,” said Wolfsie, the Kansas City school board member. “Funders, they have a say what [SchoolSmart KC’s] strategic direction probably will be — otherwise they may not fund.”

If history and experience are guides, charter schools will take the best students, and leave the rest for public schools, which have even fewer resources to educate them.

Both the Walton and Kauffman foundations have been strong supporters of charter schools; Kauffman even founded its own (high-performing) charter school in Kansas City.