••• Education •••

Vote to close KCMO charter school exposes the unlevel accountability playing field

A Missouri state commission voted this month to revoke the charter of the Genesis charter school in Kansas City due to low student test scores. Representatives of the school say they expect to appeal the decision to the Missouri Department of Education in order to keep the school open. If the commission’s vote stands, the school, which has been a charter school since 1999, will close its doors at the end of this school year.

According to the commission, the charter is being revoked because the school has “failed to meet academic performance standards.” The commission points to scores in both English and math that have dropped precipitously since the 2015-16 year and are lower than Kansas City Public Schools.

A public hearing at a local library was held in January to allow comments and input regarding the pending decision. A packed house spoke in support of keeping the K-5 elementary open but despite the outpouring of support, the commission ultimately voted to close Genesis. Can you imagine, just for a moment, a public hearing regarding closure of a traditional public school for poor performance? Neither can I.

There is no escaping the fact that the school’s academic performance is unacceptable. Proficiency levels in both math and English are in the single digits.

However, the strong support of the school by parents, those who CHOSE to have their children attend Genesis, speaks to the reality that test scores are not necessarily the primary reason for parents seeking an alternative to the traditional public school. Many school choice opponents like to claim that school choice is bad, pointing to studies that claim charter schools and other choice schools do not fare better on achievement tests. However, it is clear that the parents of Genesis students have other strong considerations for wanting the school to remain open, low test scores notwithstanding.

For example, since Genesis is housed in a Boys and Girls Club, there are many “after school” activities available without the students having to go elsewhere. Plus, since it is in a Boys and Girls club, it’s not a stretch to believe that parents feel their children are in a safer environment.

Education establishment zealots love to assert that choice schools have an unfair advantage – an ‘unlevel playing field’ as is often the descriptor – over traditional public schools. They claim that public schools have to take whomever walks in the door, while choice schools are busy cherry-picking their students.

But the Genesis school decision, like it or not, is grounded in accountability, something traditional public schools never have to worry about. When charter schools lack accountability, in this case manifested in low test scores, what happens? They get shut down. What happens when a traditional public school has low test scores year after year? They cry for – and often get courtesy of activist courts – more money! It has been shown over and over that Educrats’ interest in more money far outdistances their interest in improving student achievement. The recent Legislative Post Audit report on at-risk funding revealed that school officials fear improved test scores might actually lead to a reduction in funding. “Stakeholders also said using academic measures, such as state assessments, can have problems. Doing so often results in reduced funding as students’ academic outcomes improve,” the report states. This, of course, leads to a perverse incentive to keep scores down.

Perhaps this should be the strategy of the Genesis charter school: plea to the Missouri Department of Education that the problem would be solved if they just got more money. It works in Kansas.

On one hand, it is a hard reality that a chronically underperforming school, in this case a public charter school, is closed. As mentioned above, there are traditional public schools with a worse track record than that described here that are at zero risk of closure. After all, schools are there for the benefit of the students, not an employment service for adults. `Indeed, many of the kids struggling in a certain school today likely sit in the same classroom that their parents struggled in a generation before. It’s tragic that we’ve damned kids to environments with no accountability.

Ultimately, all publicly-funded schools need to be held to the same accountability standards. It is unacceptable that accountability is dependent upon what kind of school it is. Both charters and traditional public schools are funded with taxpayer dollars and therefore should be held to similar standards. The people of the state deserve that. Regardless of which side you come down on, at least we’d be focused on the interests of kids, not job security for adults.