Friday, December 13, 2013

Who Decides the Future of the Kansas City, MO Public Schools?

If you are a resident of the Kansas City metro area, I hope you have been following the stories over the last week about the KCMO public schools.  The district's years of failure hurt our entire city and affects the economy and quality of life of everyone--even those in the suburbs.  It's easy for those of us without kids in the district to turn away from its problems viewing them as insoluble and unchangeable.  Yet, thousands of school children--most of them low-income--who are stuck in failing schools deserve better than us shaking our heads and turning away.  This is specifically true for our church which has historically ministered to the students across Wornall at what once was Southwest High School.  These are our church's neighborhood schools and what happens to them affects us.  

CCCUCC's own Jan Parks has been working with the Education Task Force of MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and  Economic Equity) on issues related to the KCMO public schools.  She and others on the task force filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the state Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro's dealings with the group hired by the state to come up with a plan for the school system's future.  That group, CEE Trust, actively supports privatizing public schools through corporate-run charter schools.  The documentation revealed by the FOIA request details how Nicastro and CEE Trust rigged the bidding process so that CEE Trust would be chosen to come up with a plan for KCMO public schools and that Nicastro already had a plan for dissolving the school district--all this with no input from anyone in Kansas City.    

Here is some of the news coverage about this unfolding story  
Everyone can agree that KCMO's public schools have been a failure for decades, but the real justice question is whether or not the people most affected by the district's failure or success--the children and families served by the district--get any say in their own education.  Do corporations and the politicians they fund get to decide what is best for the children of Kansas City all by themselves or is there not some other way that involves all the people affected by the future of education in Kansas City?  Those without billionaire backers and lobbying groups deserve a voice in their own future.  I was proud to rally with other people of faith from MORE2 on Monday night against the way Commissioner Nicastro and CEE Trust have conspired in secret to determine the future of KCMO schools.

I don't claim to have the answers for the systemic failures of KCMO public schools, but I believe firmly that whatever effort is made to improve them should be transparent and ethical and should involve those most directly affected.  This week I have spoken with people who have emotional responses whenever KCMO schools are brought up.  These folks have worked to improve the schools for decades without success and feel burned out and frustrated.  I heard one fellow minister who has been a KC fixture for decades say, "Who cares if the state takes it over?  I have given up hope that people in Kansas City can fix this broken school system."  His remark came out of pain and disillusionment, and I as a newcomer to the situation won't attempt to talk him out of his feelings.  That being said, whether the solutions for the KCMO district involve local control, state control, private control or some mixture of all three, I would hope that everyone involved could agree that the process for saving KCMO's schools should be above board and at the very least should adhere to state regulations on things such as bidding.

A related issue that is much more complicated than mere bid rigging is whether or not privatization of public schools is a good or bad thing.  Certainly, one can easily find both good and bad examples of privately run charter schools just as one can easily find both good and bad examples of publicly run.schools.  The solution to failing schools is not simply an either/or solution.  Most public school systems could benefit from the expertise of businesses in terms of best practices and every public school system I know is grateful for private dollars that support their work.   

A real solution to our city's failing schools must be found by a focus on the common good.  Education has proven throughout our nation's history to be a great determining factor in terms of a person's emotional, financial and political achievement in society.  Our ancestors in faith saw that need before there was a system of public schools and colleges.  It was people of faith who first founded schools in our country--not for reasons they do so today which are mainly for indoctrination, but because they saw it as essential to the common good.  I believe something is lost when private businesses approach public education as a money-making enterprise rather than as a contribution to the common good.  Critics such as Diane Ravitch charge that groups like CEE Trust--which conspired with Commissioner Nicastro to get the bid to develop a plan for KCMO's schools--and its parent organization Mind Trust are interested in privatization of public schools not for the common good but for the good of their own bottom line.  Over a year ago, Reuters wrote an article about hedge fund managers meeting to discuss how they could increase their profits through vendors offering "solutions" to failing public schools.  Making money in and of itself is not a sin, but when making money becomes more important than the common good it is sinful.   People who make a lot of money can do a lot of good with it to help others, but they can also do a lot of bad with it when their profits come at the expense of those who lack power and money. 

The move towards privatization in sectors of our society other than education has not served us well.  The private contracting of the military over the last sixty years has resulted in "Defense Spending" becoming one of the largest parts of our nation's budget.  Once private companies have that much public money they can lobby the government to increase spending in the military sector.  Critics of this process make use of Eisenhower's term the "military industrial complex."  The military industrial complex has profited greatly from the last twelve years of war.  Today our prison system is in large part run by private corporations who have not only enriched themselves but taken public money and used it to lobby for a criminal justice system that ensures prisons are full and that more of them are needed.  It is named by critics as the "prison industrial complex."  What might an "education industrial complex" look like?    

I've laid out my suspicions and biases.  I don't require or expect the members of the church where I serve to agree with everything I think about such complicated issues, but I would hope that we could agree that the first sensible first step is for an investigation into the bidding process carried out by Commissioner Nicastro and CEE Trust.  This is what MORE2 has called for and what a growing number of politicians across the state are also calling for.  Other organizations are calling for more drastic measures, but this seems like a sensible first step to me.    

It may be that when it comes to KCMO public schools there will be more opportunities for people of faith in KC to raise their voices on behalf of those people whose voice is not being heard. 

I'm proud to be pastor of a church with members like Jan Parks who care enough about their community to work to expose public corruption.  I'm proud that our church supports MORE2 which works for racial and economic justice in city hall and in the statehouse.  I'm proud that our church is concerned about more than just what is best for us as individuals but is concerned enough about the common good to do more than talk about it.   

Grace and Peace,