KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In Rachael McIlvaine’s eighth-grade science class at West Middle School here, a chatty but focused group of three takes turns closing their eyes, dipping a plastic spoon into a foil roasting pan and fishing for M&M’s, trying to capture as much candy as they can.
The idea is to show how homes use clean water and replace it with pollution; for every regular M&M removed, students replace it with a peanut M&M, which they track on a chart showing what percentage of the “water” remains clean.
The pollution analogy works well: The M&M’s have seen better days. Many of them are cracked or chipped, the result of having been reused. “They’re kind of nasty,” remarks one student.
“I reuse the M&M’s because a bag of M&M’s is $4 or $5 a piece and 100 of those per group would add up over time as far as cost,” McIlvaine says.
Teachers in financially strapped urban districts are used to saving money where they can. In that respect, Kansas City, where in 2014 nearly 90 percent of the students were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, is not unusual. But since 2009, according to David Smith, the district’s chief of communications and government relations, the district has had to cut more than $50 million from its already tight budget because of state cutbacks, threatening progress in a district that had seen some significant and surprising gains for its students.
Kansas’ governor and Legislature are also making national headlines for not equalizing education funding between low-income and wealthier districts. The state Supreme Court has warned that it could prevent schools from opening in the fall if the state refuses to comply with its most recent order to increase funding.
But whether or not the school district gets the cash, it says it is going forward with an ambitious plan to add a requirement that, to get their diplomas, high schoolers must score a 21 on the ACT, complete a year of college or earn a technical certificate.
Kansas City’s persistence in the face of the funding shortfalls raises questions reformers across the nation have battled over for decades: Can districts raise expectations and improve achievement on a shoestring? How little money is too little for schools to function well, and what could be achieved with more? Whether Kansas City maintains its optimism or loses ground as the belt tightens could begin to suggest answers.
“The passion around doing the work is still present,” said Superintendent Cynthia Lane. “But it’s hard to maintain morale and to keep folks moving in the very aggressive direction that we’ve set for ourselves. It’s hard to ask them to stretch to do more when they’re already really doing everything that’s humanly possible.”
The district says it has tried to prevent the cuts from reaching the classroom by spending its limited funding more efficiently. But class sizes have begun to increase, and many of the supports that educators here say helped spark improvements over the last 15 years have been removed.
McIlvaine fears for what’s to come. “At some point you have to make up for that somewhere,” she said. “Teachers are always used to filling in the gaps — but if it continues longer term, then you look at not having the ability to hire new staff when you need new staff, or being able to update when it’s time to update.”
An energized community
In the mid-1990s, the Kansas City School district was at a low point: Achievement was dismal but teachers were “in pretty much of a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mode and we were just kind of cruising,” said Ray Daniels, assistant superintendent for personnel at that time (he was promoted to superintendent in 1998). A local philanthropy, the Kauffman Foundation, was looking for an urban district in which to try a whole-district reform model based on research about the importance of relationships in student motivation.
Designed by the Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE), a New Jersey-based nonprofit, the model, called “First Things First,” combined a number of ideas that were gaining currency at the time: small learning communities, “looping” (in which teachers stay with the same students for multiple years) and changes in teaching practices to emphasize engagement and rigor. Some elements of the reform, including a family advocate system designed to bring families and schools closer together, were developed as the initiative moved forward.
Kansas City, Kansas, went all in, and First Things First began operations in 1998-99.
“We put them all together and with the KCK folks figured out how to implement them in an integrated way so they could enhance each other,” said James Connell, co-founder and president of IRRE.
Teachers were assigned students to monitor and guide toward their academic goals. They were also given a common planning period to discuss student progress and problems and consider ways to make lessons more rigorous and engaging.
Reports about the initiative say a crucial aspect of its success was the district’s wholehearted support — including moving personnel from the central district office to the schools and convincing a skeptical police department and community that it was a good idea to let all the students in the system out early on Wednesdays so teachers could have the common planning time.
“It was an astounding amount of change,” said Daniels. “The fact that the district was able to pull that together and make all those changes with a lot of pushback — for a few years there were a lot of people not very happy with what we were doing — I think it was pretty incredible.”
At first, the Kauffman Foundation provided only the cost of technical assistance, to the tune of about $100,000 a year. But when the early results began to demonstrate the efficacy of its framework the foundation awarded First Things First a five-year grant of $9.6 million in 2001.
A 2005 research study by the MDRC, a New York- and Oakland, California-based research group, found that Kansas City high schools produced and sustained a “double digit” improvement in the percentage of 11th-graders reading proficiently and a dramatic decline in the percentage of students scoring “unsatisfactory” on the state test. Middle schools also produced large improvements in reading and math scores. Attendance improved among middle and high school students.
“We really think something significant happened there,” said Janet Quint, a senior research associate at MDRC.
A study by Brett Lane, president and founder of the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Learning, an education research and policy consulting firm, reported that the percentage of students in the district proficient in math increased by over 50 points and in reading by over 40 points between 1996 and 2008. Graduation rates rose from 52.5 percent in 2000 to 78.4 percent in 2007.
Former Superintendent Daniels remembers receiving admiring visits from as far away as New York City, Boston and Chicago. “All these big districts came, and what was amazing was how many would say, ‘We can’t do this in our district. We’d never get away with it.’ I think [it was] just the amount of things we had to do,” he said.
Nevertheless, other cities did begin to copy the Kansas City model, although early results didn’t show conclusive progress in the first two or three years. By 2005, the First Things First approach was in use in more than 70 schools in nine districts across the country, according to MDRC.
Not everyone was so impressed. Daniels remembers some skeptics questioning the validity of the jump in state test scores, noting the fact that Kansas City students’ average ACT scores — which he remembers as being in the 15-17 range — had not improved as much as the state scores.
“There were people who really didn’t believe the reports,” he said. “But I think what people didn’t realize was we didn’t perform a miracle. It wasn’t that all of our kids were suddenly performing in the 90th percentile and were scoring 30s on the ACTs. The mantra around the district when I retired was, ‘We’re pleased with what’s happening, but we’re not satisfied.’ We knew we still had a long ways to go.”
The money runs out
The Kauffman funding ended in 2006, but by that same year, the Legislature had increased education funding in the whole state by more than $700 million in response to court orders resulting from a suit by several Kansas districts arguing that the state underfunded poor districts.
But when the recession hit, the state began cutting back again on its appropriations.
In the 2008-09 school year, Cynthia Lane was chief financial officer. “We had to cut almost $11 million out of our budget and it was extremely painful,” she remembers. “And I was asked by the superintendent to lead that work. So going line by line through our budget and putting people’s names on paper that we knew we were going to have to lay off was really impactful to me.”
When she became superintendent in 2010, one of the first decisions to cross her desk was whether to join a new suit against the state. Kansas City became one of the lead plaintiffs.
Before the cuts, “with the resources to provide tutoring and extended school day and all the other supports that our kids needed, we were beginning to really see meaningful change,” she continues. “And then you could see the performance begin to decline as we had to cut back on people, human resources and all kinds of things to support our students.”
At the same time, it became clear that the gains on test scores weren’t necessarily adding up to long-term success for students. The district heard from returning graduates — who had been proficient on the state exams — that they had had to take remedial classes at college, according to the district’s David Smith.
So, the district applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver that would allow it to use the ACT as its high school completion exam and began requiring it of students in 2012. The district also embraced the new Common Core standards, despite controversy elsewhere. The standards were intended to get students ready for college with an increased focus on a conceptual understanding of math and evidence-based writing.
And, beginning with the graduating class of 2021, the district has added an additional challenge, a program it refers to collectively as Diploma+. To graduate, in addition to regular requirements, students will have to do at least one of the following: complete a year of college courses, earn an industry-recognized technical certificate or score at least a 21 on the ACT (a score of 21 on the ACT is one factor that can guarantee admission at five out of the state’s six public universities).
The district’s high goals for its students have been driven in part by high expectations from the community, Smith said. A series of meetings with parents and community members preceding Superintendent Lane’s taking over the job had a common theme. “They wanted excellence,” Smith said. “They wanted us to be able to compete with kids anywhere.”
So, the district is not letting its constricting financial picture dull its ambitions on behalf of its kids. “Our kids need these initiatives,” Smith said. How to pay for them? “That’s our job to figure it out.”
In 2010, Sam Brownback was elected governor and declared in his first state of the state address that he wanted to lower state taxes. In the spring of 2012, he signed into law what The Kansas City Star referred to as “massive” tax cuts. At the time, the Star reported, Brownback promised the cuts would create “tens of thousands of new jobs” in the state.
His predictions have not been borne out by time. After projections in late 2014 showed that the state would bring in $1 billion less than expected, the governor began cutting state agency budgets, and the Legislature enacted a temporary series of block grants that froze education funding for two years.
Education is a fluid business. Students arrive and leave, and the number of students in a district requiring extra funding changes, according to John Robb, a lawyer for Schools for Fair Funding, a coalition of districts supporting the lawsuits against the state. The block grants ignored those shifts and ignored inflation of about 3 percent per year, said Robb. “[The district has] eaten that 3 percent cut since 2009. That’s seven years — a 21 percent bite. With increasing insurance premiums, the cost of paper, the cost of fuel for your buses …”
The block grants were instituted after the state had also reduced equalization payments compensating poorer districts like Kansas City for the fact that their lower property values meant they could not raise as much for education, Robb said.
At the same time, Robb added, Kansas already spends too little per pupil.
The current base state aid per pupil is $3,852, a mere $252 more than it was in 1992 and not much more than half of what it would be if the 1992 amount had merely been adjusted for inflation — to approximately $6,000, according to Robb.
In an email, Eileen Hawley, spokesperson for the governor, disputed the notion that education funding for the Kansas City district or the state in general had declined, saying instead that it has increased. She said that the Kansas City district received nearly $30 million more in state funding in 2016 than it did in 2009.
But Smith said that a $30 million increase did not begin to cover the district’s growth in enrollment, including an increasing number of students with limited English and special needs. “In raw enrollment numbers alone, the district grew four times the size of the median school district in Kansas, so of course we got more money,” he said. “But we clearly did not get enough additional money in 2013-14 to cover our changes in demographics and student count.”
The funding was “still below what the Kansas Supreme Court in 2005 said was a constitutionally adequate level of funding,” he added.
In February, the state Supreme Court ruled that the block grants were unconstitutional and gave the state until June 30 to propose a new solution. The Legislature responded with a bill called HB 2655, which was signed into law by the governor, but has produced sharp disagreement among legislators and others as to whether it will meet the Court’s requirements.
“The governor believes we have great schools in Kansas and we do not know why the courts would threaten to shut them down,” Hawley wrote in an email. “He wants to keep schools open and ensure our students continue to have access to a quality education. The governor appreciates the hard work of the Kansas Legislature in passing a bill to address equity in school funding and asks the Court to review that legislation with appropriate deference.”
Robb believes the bill is unlikely to pass muster with the Court.
Insulating the classroom
In the meantime, the Kansas City school district has done its best to absorb the hits by making cuts in the central office, increasing student-teacher ratios, delaying maintenance and eliminating most travel for professional development.
It has also been slow to renovate and construct new buildings, though the average age of Kansas City school buildings is 60.
“When we have the money to put aside to do something then we’ll do it,” Smith said. He added that a recent study commissioned for the board indicates that the district has some $850 million worth of construction and maintenance needs, $120 million of it “described as critical.”
The district has found some smaller amounts of support for its newest initiatives from local foundations and even from a utilities tax rebate. And it has found more savings. For instance, district leaders were able to reduce the district’s textbook budget by delaying upgrades to new textbooks, according to Alan King, the district’s curriculum director. The Common Core standards led the district to databases where teachers can download the nonfiction reading heavily emphasized in the standards.
Despite efforts to keep cuts away from the classroom, though, teachers haven’t been immune from the shortfall. In particular, salaries have lagged. “We’re not really competitive in regards to compensation of staff,” Smith said. “Frequently we’ll have teachers start here, work four or five years, gain experience and then transfer and get a significant bump up in pay. So that we become kind of the farm team, the training ground.”
Curriculum director King noted that many more teachers than expected attended a recent meeting about retirement. “A lot of people are considering it who might have been thinking about sticking around a few more years.”
Smith said one place teachers frequently go after leaving the Kansas City schools is to neighboring Johnson County, where higher property values allow it to raise more money for schools and therefore depend less on the state.
Asked what she would do with the state funds if they were suddenly increased, Lane didn’t hesitate. “Lower class sizes, immediately,” she said. “We’ve got elementary classrooms sitting with 32 and sometimes 35 kids in a classroom, and that is just not the way to do business if you’re trying to make sure every student is succeeding.”
Of the possibility of an increase in state funds, Lane is hopeful. “I always try to look at the world as a glass half full of water,” she said. “There are days when it doesn’t look likely. But the energy across our state with citizens who are getting engaged and expressing their concern gives me great hope that our legislative leaders will [reverse] those tax cuts that caused this dramatic shortfall.”
Early Release Wednesday
State politics had not dampened the enthusiasm of a group of math teachers assembled for one of several sessions at Schlagle High School on a Wednesday afternoon in February. Students had been released early, a carryover from the First Things First reform.
Teacher leader Edwin Wright led a session on measuring students’ comprehension and progress; the group of perhaps 30 teachers vigorously discussed ways to measure how kids are learning — and the difference between “obtrusive” and “unobtrusive” assessment.
Afterward, J.C. Harmon High School math teacher Allison Hajek said she was proud of the rigor the district demands. “Our kids deserve it,” Hajek said.
In her five years at J.C. Harmon, Hajek has begun to see the district’s higher expectations pay off, especially in the case of the Common Core. “Every year it just keeps getting easier,” she said.
Wright is an enthusiastic and effective presenter, but he said one consequence of the budget cuts is that in-house teacher leaders’ efforts are rarely augmented by outside speakers who might be able to help teachers learn things more quickly. “We’ve had a few of those in the past five years around the Common Core … I can probably name them on one hand,” he said.
But, he said, working for Superintendent Lane, knowing she has testified before the Legislature against the funding cuts and being part of a district that is one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state over the constitutionality of funding has fueled a sense of solidarity and a fighting spirit.
Teacher leader John Scanlan said that he feels fortunate to have landed in Kansas City after years of working in business. “Everybody’s heart is in the right place. Everybody’s trying,” he said. “And if you’re not, you’re almost scorned by your peers. They just don’t give you the time of day.”
But based on his business experience, Scanlan worries that the state cutbacks have already gone too far. “When you make budget cuts, the first round — 10 percent — can actually be healthy. Twenty percent pushes the limits of healthy. You’re going to lose good people. You’re not going to have time to do the right things. We’re at that 20 percent threshold,” he said. “It’s starting to hurt.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about High School Reform.