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Ed secretary: KC schools trouble a ’huge concern’

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday that the number of students dropping out of the Kansas City School District is “a huge concern,” but there was no immediate announcement about whether he would support Mayor Sly James’ takeover proposal.

Duncan and James met earlier this week in Washington to discuss the plan to allow mayoral control of the recently unaccredited district, James’ spokesman Danny Rotert said.

Although Duncan hasn’t specifically endorsed James’ takeover proposal, which would require legislative approval, he has said previously that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.

Rotert said Duncan told James during their meeting Tuesday that the Kansas City district’s 2010 graduating class was 61 percent smaller than the ninth grade class from four years earlier. That figure doesn’t take into account such things as students who transfer to different schools. The district’s official graduation rate, which does account for transfers, is 50.61 percent, according to figures from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We know about 60 percent of students in Kansas City public schools are dropping out of high school, and that is a huge concern,” Duncan said in a written statement Thursday. “Like many urban districts, the Kansas City, Mo., School District faces major challenges. Mayor James and I discussed some of those issues and how we can best support the district to ensure that students receive the world-class education they deserve.”

Duncan is the former chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. In Chicago, as in several other large cities, the mayor has full control over the school system and picks its leader.

“The message that Secretary Duncan gave to the mayor is if you get control of the district this will be one of the hardest things you do but it also will be the most rewarding you do if you can turn it around,” Rotert said. “And he has firsthand knowledge of that.”

Interim Superintendent Steve Green said the district is trying to improve and questioned the motives of Duncan and James during a news conference Thursday.

“I refuse to let this district continue to be used as a platform for individuals for political games,” Green said.

Enrollment in the district has shrunk to about 17,000 from a peak of 75,000 in the late 1960s. After test scores failed to improve, the state board voted this fall to strip the district’s accreditation, effective Sunday.

That triggered a state law that requires unaccredited districts to pay to send students to accredited districts. Because the law is embroiled in litigation, the districts that neighbor unaccredited school systems in Kansas City and St. Louis are blocking transfers for now.

James’ takeover plan, which would put transfers on hold, is among a raft of proposals the legislature is expected to consider this session to address struggling schools. One proposal would make it easier for districts to annex portions of unaccredited districts. Another proposal calls for suburban Kansas City districts to contract to operate unaccredited schools. That would address the transfer issue because students in the Kansas City district would become part of accredited school systems.

Rotert said the concern with the annexation proposal is that the most affluent portions of the districts would be cherry-picked, leaving behind only the poorest neighborhoods. He said those poor neighborhoods, where homes often sell for less than $10,000, wouldn’t have the tax base to support successful schools.

“In many of the school breakups, what ends up happening is that the more salvageable pieces leave, leaving a really hollowed out area,” Rotert said. “And if you don’t think we can get worse, I am pretty sure we probably can and that’s not a good scenario for anyone. And if you start getting worse with less resources it sets up a horrible system.”

Rotert said allowing neighboring districts to operate the unaccredited schools posed a risk, too. He questioned whether residents of the Kansas City district would have a voting voice in the neighboring districts. He also noted that the neighboring districts want to keep the test scores of transfer students separate for at least three years.

“If you are going to run a school district but separate out a portion of that district as different and not your kids really, I think that sets up a really interesting and perhaps not great system,” Rotert said.

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