Testimony from Awais Sufi, President & CEO, SchoolSmartKC

Missouri Joint Committee on Education
September 12, 2017
Jefferson City, MO

Ladies and gentlemen of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. My name is Awais Sufi, and I am the President and CEO of a new 501(c)(3) entitled SchoolSmartKC.

SchoolSmartKC is a collaborative effort supporting K-12 education in Kansas City. This effort is funded primarily from three foundations (the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Hall Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation) and regularly engages a wide swath of community, business, and civic groups to inform and advise our work.

I was recruited back home to the Midwest from Washington, DC, to run this entity, and I spent over 18 months defining the focus of our efforts by doing the most critical thing first: listening to our Kansas City community and their ideas on how to improve local educational opportunities. I likely logged well over 350 meetings with teachers, District administrators, charter school leaders and boards, parents, students, faith leaders, community activists, business leaders, policy-makers and civic leaders.

It is from that outreach effort that a common objective emerged:

SchoolSmartKC’s strategy looks to substantially improve the quality of school options available to young people and their families in the core urban District of Kansas City, Missouri and transform student academic and life outcomes over the next decade.

This goal is critical to support the least advantaged communities, families and students in our midst, who are most significantly affected in their long-term life outcomes by low quality schooling. We see that in Kansas City, our local system reflects the dynamic nature of many urban education environments with multiple District and charter school options. For these communities, families and students, SchoolSmartKC seeks a policy environment that fosters substantial improvement and sustained performance in all District and charter schools for the benefit of our students, our city, and the state.

In that spirit, we believe that three principles must be woven into any effort undertaken by the legislature:

First, accountability for all schools – both District and charter.

Regardless of race, ethnicity, income level, or zip code, families almost never seek out a specific governance system, they seek quality schools. And they usually do not care if they are District, charter, or otherwise. Yet, those schools aren’t measured in the same way, causing significant confusion and leaving interpretation of complex data on parents’ shoulders.

Across both District and charter school buildings, accountability standards and the assessments under these standards must be:

  • simple, clear and transparent;
  • readily understandable to parents, students and our community; and
  • applicable across all public school types.

To date, our school accountability rubrics have not met this critical goal. They are overly complex and cannot be applied meaningfully and equitably to all Missouri public schools, whether they be District, charter, rural, urban, or suburban.

Further, we must do a better job with all schools to ensure that every place of learning is held to a high standard reflecting adequate preparation for all students to be successful in education, work, and life after high school.

For example, we must ensure our accountability system presents a standardized and simplified accountability rubric that applies to both charter schools and District schools in urban, suburban, and rural districts on a building by building basis and accounts for the grades they serve. Properly constituted, this standard would ensure all individual schools are performing to a high standard or face definitive action, up to and including closure and replacement.

An important start in this regard is that current law – in which charter closures are mandated in cases of long-term underperformance – must be followed without exception. In addition, charter school sponsors must consistently apply quality standards and accountability requirements, with true consequences for persistent underperformance for both the charter schools and the sponsors if they allow underperformers to languish. To be clear, closing down schools is not the objective; rather, we must ensure our least advantaged students and families transition to better quality options – whether those be District or charter. This requires that we provide ample resources and support to transitioning students to identify a quality school in which to continue their educational journey and be given priority to enroll at that school, whether District or charter.

Similarly, District schools must be held to the same high standards with true consequences for chronic underperformance. When specific District schools persistently underperform, Districts must be required to either close down schools or use new authorities to fully reconstitute the school. Again, this must be done in close dialogue with communities and families affected by such closure, who are often the least advantaged among us. Indeed, this does not mean simply posting a sign on the door indicating the school has been closed. Rather, Districts should work hand-in-hand with families and local neighborhoods and communities, helping them select a proper path forward. This could be either helping families transition to better options or reconstituting their school with new leadership and instructors who are responsive to them and who can help these families carry out a new shared vision for the school. We believe this type of community-design process can truly reflect what the community desires and is something the District can and must provide.

Second, systemic coherence and efficiency must be driving factors in the operation of all schools in the Kansas City Public School system.

Both District and charter schools have increasingly provided choices to families and students, which helps ensure our school system is responsive to community demand.

However, with limited incentive for cooperation between the District and charters, we often see significant fragmentation, higher costs, and substantial inefficiencies at the expense of our students.

We must preserve choice dynamics already in place. But we also must work to link different school types and options into systems that are more coordinated to maximize both efficiency and student outcomes.

For instance, facilities paid for by the public that are not in use should be made available to schools consistently performing at a high quality level, regardless of school type. Too often our taxpayers are paying millions of dollars repeatedly for new school facilities needed by quality charter schools, all while District buildings are held or sold with conditions that prohibit use as a school.

Also, quality K-8 charter schools, subject to review by sponsors, must be given the right to form partnerships that help ensure they can matriculate into common high schools. Currently, interpretation of regulations obstructs such partnerships, and each school seeks to build its own small high school, which are often financially unsustainable and do not serve the broader needs of students seeking a comprehensive high school experience that can prepare them for success after graduation.

Participation in common, unified enrollment systems must also be required so that all families have equal access to schools through a transparent and fully legal compliant process. Such a system will also promote equity where our least advantaged families have equal access to quality options. It will also ensure much needed enrollment stability at all schools, reducing the school shopping and hopping that occurs months into the school year and destabilizes classrooms across our system.

Third and finally, career readiness must be a fundamental aim of our educational system.

We must recognize the indisputable fact that our school system is failing if our youth are not fully prepared to continue their education, get a job or create a job as judged by our employers and the broader economy.

Missouri has made progress in this regard, but we must continue to do better. State assessments should be highly correlated with employer-validated standards, and students should be positioned to graduate with a high school degree as well as an associate degree, substantial college credit, or certification of trades or competencies that have value in the job market.

To ensure we get to this point, schools and Districts should understand how to utilize waivers from the “normal” way of doing business, releasing them from regulations that require a standard approach and mandatory seat time. Such waivers, of course, should be issued only upon demonstration, in the eyes of employers, that these different approaches enable competencies to be developed. There are already dozens of Districts developing programs and innovative approaches across Missouri, and their successes and challenges should be shared with a broad audience.

This readiness standard must trickle through all of our schools, with core competencies in math, reading, science, computing and others at earlier grades and developed in a manner that ensures students are prepared to meet this life and career preparedness track our future requires.

Taken together, SchoolSmartKC believes these three policy priorities can and should be critical guides to our legislature as it seeks to support the education of all of our youth and the long-term vitality of the State.

Thank you again for the opportunity to weigh in with the Committee on this important topic. The entire staff at SchoolSmartKC stand ready to help the legislature on these important improvements.

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