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Vote to close KCMO charter school exposes uneven playing field of accountability

GUEST COLUMN, Ganon Evans, Kansas Policy Institute

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. School representatives say they expect to appeal the decision to the Missouri Department of Education to keep the school open. If the committee’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According to the commission, the charter was revoked because the school “failed to meet academic performance standards.” The commission indicates scores in both English and math that have dropped precipitously since the 2015-16 year and are below those of Kansas City public schools.

A public hearing was held at a local library in January to allow for comments and input regarding the pending decision. A packed crowd spoke in support of keeping elementary K-5 open, but despite the outpouring of support, the committee ultimately voted to close Genesis. Can you imagine, just for a moment, a public hearing on the 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 Maths and English are in the single digits.

However, the school’s strong support from parents, those who have CHOSEN to have their children attend Genesis, speaks to the reality that test scores aren’t necessarily the primary reason parents seek an alternative to traditional school publish. Many naysayers of school choice like to claim that school choice is wrong, pointing to studies that say charter schools and other schools of choice fare no better on achievement tests. However, it’s clear that parents of Genesis students have other strong considerations for wanting the school to stay open, despite low test scores.

For example, because Genesis is housed in a boys’ and girls’ club, there are plenty of “after-school” activities available without students having to go elsewhere. Also, since it’s in a boys’ and girls’ club, it’s not a stretch to believe that parents feel their children are in a safer environment.

Educational establishment fanatics like to argue that select schools have an unfair advantage – an “uneven playing field” as it is often described – over traditional public schools. They claim that public schools have to welcome everyone who walks in the door, while choice schools are busy choosing their own students.

But Genesis School’s 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 are closed. What happens when a traditional public school has low test scores year after year? They ask for – and often get the courtesy of activist courts – more money! It has been proven time and time again that Educats’ interest in more money far outweighs their interest in improving student achievement. The recent post-legislative audit report on risky funding revealed that school officials fear that improved test scores could actually lead to a reduction in funding. “Stakeholders have also said that using academic measures, such as state assessments, can have problems. This often results in reduced funding as students’ academic achievement improves,” the report says. This, of course, leads to a perverse incentive to keep scores down.

Perhaps this should be the Genesis charter school’s strategy: to plead with the Missouri Department of Education that the problem would be solved if only they had more money. Works in Kansas.

On the one hand, it is a harsh reality that a chronically underperforming school, in this case a public charter school, is closed. As mentioned above, there are mainstream public schools with worse track records than the one described here that are at zero risk of closing. After all, schools are for the benefit of students, not an employment service for adults. `In fact, many of the children struggling in a certain school today probably sit in the same class where their parents struggled a generation earlier. It is tragic that we have condemned children to environments without accountability.

Ultimately, all publicly funded schools must be held to the same standards of accountability. It is unacceptable that responsibility depends on the type of school. Both charter and traditional public schools are funded with taxpayer dollars and therefore should be held to similar standards. The people of the state deserve it. Regardless of which side you fall on, at least we’d be focused on the interests of children, not job security for adults.

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