KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - A private education reform group is preparing to release its recommendations for turning around Missouri's unaccredited school systems, even as debate swirls over whether the consultant was appropriately awarded the contract.
The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, or CEE-Trust, has been tasked with coming up with ideas that could be implemented in the Kansas City school district and potentially also in Normandy, Riverview Gardens - both in St. Louis County - or any other districts that become unaccredited. CEE-Trust was started by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform nonprofit that operates a charter school incubator.
The firm, which will make its draft recommendations to the State Board of Education on Monday afternoon, was awarded the contract last fall as a new state law took effect giving the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education greater powers to intervene in troubled schools. But Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro received criticism from some lawmakers and community organizations after emails raised questions about the bidding process used to select CEE-Trust.
Key among the concerns is that the state initially sought to hire CEE-Trust without putting the project out to bid, according to emails obtained through an open records request by the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity , an interfaith social justice organization also known as MORE2, and provided to The Kansas City Star. After the state board balked at a no-bid contract and other entities were invited to submit bids, CEE-Trust still came out the winner, even though its bid was nearly three times higher than the closest competitor.
MORE2 executive director Lora McDonald said her group was among several that called for the state to pull the plug on the study until contract questions were answered. She said she also has concerns because she believes that the soon-to-be unveiled proposal will recommend the expansion of charter schools in unaccredited districts. She noted that the Kaufman Foundation, one of two foundations bankrolling CEE-Trust's contract, is a charter backer that has opened its own charter school.
"We have gone through this rabbit hole of creating a few high-quality schools, but, who goes to them?" McDonald asked. "It's the children whose parents are on top of their game, and those kids are going to get a good education because they have parents who are capable of facilitating that, no matter which school they are in. I think what is left behind is kids whose families have the greatest level of need and the least ability to access the privatization movement."
Following the Star's story about the emails, two groups of state lawmakers called last month for investigations, and Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich is considering whether to audit the department.
Nicastro wrote in a letter to the editor that ran in The Kansas City Star last weekend that people are "united in their desire" to ensure all children have quality schools but that "accusations and conspiracy theories have distracted us from the honest debate of ideas that we desperately need."
The emails highlighted in the newspaper's story also revealed that as the Kansas City district was preparing to make its pitch to get partial accreditation this fall after making its biggest academics improvements in years, Nicastro was moving in another direction. Behind the scenes she was promoting a statewide district that would operate some of Missouri's lowest-performing schools. The Kansas City district, which ultimately failed to receive an accreditation upgrade, could begin to see its students taking advantage of a state law to transfer to accredited school systems as soon as this fall.
Normandy and Riverview Gardens have lost more than 2,000 students since the transfers began this school year. Kansas City, seeking to avoid a similar budget-busting exodus of students, has sued over the accreditation upgrade denial.
Nicastro defended the decision not to grant Kansas City provisional accreditation in the letter, noting that the district needed to demonstrate sustainable improvement. She wrote she would recommend an accreditation boost if the school system again meets the threshold for provisional accreditation when the state reviews a fresh round of school performance data this summer. But she said the state must consider how to intervene if Kansas City and other unaccredited districts are unable to make sufficient or sustained gains.
"We would be neglecting our duty if we didn't seek out the best possible ideas for improving our children's educational opportunity," Nicastro wrote. "That's why the Department sought assistance in conducting the necessary research to create 'a clear set of recommendations for state action to transform' unaccredited districts. Perhaps the process could and should have been handled differently. Even so, it doesn't change the fact that the children and families in every community in the state deserve high quality schools. We need all voices to focus on that most essential issue."