(File photo) A guardian signs himself and a Kansas City Public Schools student into an enrollment fair held by KCPS on July 28 at Manual Career and Technical Center in Kansas City. KCPS enrollment exceeded projections this year. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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For the first time, preliminary data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows local charter schools have enrolled more students in kindergarten through 12th grade than Kansas City Public Schools. 

That means that of the more than 26,500 K-12 students who attended either KCPS or a charter school within the district’s boundaries near the end of September, a slight majority attends one of 20 charter schools. 

KCPS still enrolls the majority of students if pre-K is included. 

Numbers were reported by districts based on their enrollment on the last Wednesday of September and are considered preliminary until final data is available at the end of the school year, DESE spokesperson Mallory McGowin said in an email.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the control of the school district and are free of some of the regulations traditional public schools must follow. 

Charter schools were legalized in Kansas City and St. Louis in the late 1990s. They were later allowed elsewhere in the state under specific circumstances, but they have not expanded beyond those two districts. 

In Kansas City, the relationship between KCPS and charter schools is complicated, because while they share some resources, they also compete for students and funding.

The DESE data also shows that charter school enrollment steadily increased over the past few years, even as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education and caused some students to go “missing” as they left school during remote learning. 

Meanwhile, KCPS’ enrollment dipped by more than 5% between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. ​​The Kansas City Beacon reported in February that public school enrollment in both Kansas and Missouri dropped by about 3% during a similar time frame.

As it prepared for the 2021-22 school year, KCPS was predicting an enrollment decline of about 1%. 

Recruitment exceeded expectations — driven by higher-than-projected enrollment for kindergarten, first and ninth grades. Enrollment has also grown by more than 200 since the district’s report of late September numbers.

A presentation to the KCPS board of education Nov. 17 stated the district’s enrollment surpassed charter schools’, but the data wasn’t comparing the same time periods. It used the late September count for charter schools and a more recent number for KCPS. Even using the updated count, KCPS is still hundreds short of its 2019-20 enrollment.

“It’s very important that we stay above that 50% threshold of students versus charter schools,” Kelly Wachel, KCPS’ chief marketing and communications officer, said during the presentation. “We have to be the schools of choice for our families in the community.”

Charter schools say it’s about having options

Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the numbers show families appreciate charter schools. 

“Giving families options, and allowing families to really understand the education that’s provided to their children and then make those choices and ensure that they are receiving a really quality education, that’s the goal,” he said. “And what this is showing is that more and more families are glad to have options available to them.”

Thaman said charters’ smaller sizes allowed them to be more nimble during the pandemic.

The nearly 13,500 students who attend Kansas City charters are split among 20 schools that each have one to five buildings, often divided by grade level. 

“That flexibility they had allowed them to continue to deliver an education to children, even when they could not be in the school building, at a little quicker rate than larger institutions,” Thaman said. 

“The really strong family-school relationships that existed, those really benefited families during the pandemic, because there was immediate communication between the school and the family.” 

Outside of pandemic times, charter school supporters say the schools’ flexibility, and the fact that students can choose which one to attend, allows the schools to offer unique programs for different kinds of students. 

KCPS already collaborates with Kansas City charter schools 

At the Nov. 17 meeting, the district approved a payment to local charter schools as part of an effort to make up what charter school proponents say is a funding discrepancy created by state law. KCPS is transferring more than $10.7 million to charter schools this year. The district’s operating budget is about $211 million.

KCPS also collaborates with charter schools, Superintendent Mark Bedell said at a roundtable with reporters in mid-October. 

For example, the district coordinates transportation and food services with some charter schools and has agreements with others to allow their students to take career development classes at Manual Career and Technical Center.

(File photo) Desiree Martin and her children Hayden, 8, right, and Elliot, 11, are pictured July 28 at an enrollment fair held by Kansas City Public Schools at Manual Career and Technical Center in Kansas City. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

“I think the question that I would probably pose back to the media on that is actually: Charters, what have they done to come over to the other side of the sand?” Bedell said.

He said about half of the graduates of KCPS’ Middle College program, a collaboration between KCPS and Metropolitan Community College to educate 17- to 24-year-olds who left school, dropped out of charter schools. 

Community input could help KCPS become more competitive with KC charter schools

At the same time, the district makes no secret that it sees charter schools as competition for students, and it has thrown resources into marketing and recruitment efforts. 

When students leave traditional public schools for charters, funding follows them. Meanwhile, expenses don’t always decrease proportionally. 

A 2018 system analysis from Kansas City Public Schools, which covered both the district and charter schools, found the area’s schools were inefficient. Compared with Springfield Public Schools, a district of similar size, Kansas City spent twice as much on building administration and more than four times as much on other administration. 

As students have departed for charter schools and neighboring suburban districts, district officials say KCPS is operating as if it were a much larger district, with too many under-enrolled buildings that cost a lot to maintain.

Yet district leaders also say KCPS is not taking full advantage of its size to offer activities and courses that work best on a large scale — things like sports teams, extracurricular activities and a greater variety of foreign language classes. 

KCPS is currently updating its 10-year plan through Blueprint 2030. It is seeking input from staff, parents, students and community members as it considers major changes. 

Those changes could include school closures, though Bedell and other district leaders insist the focus of the initiative isn’t closing schools, but rather making the improvements the community would most like to see. 

They hope changes will allow the district to compete with suburban districts like Blue Springs and Independence — which already have more consolidated schools with greater course and activity offerings — and charter schools. 

Ultimately, the district is dependent on families making their wishes known, then following through by choosing KCPS schools. 

“We know that if we want our kids to have a true comprehensive experience, it is going to come through the engagement of this community around: What do you want to see this system look like in 2030?” Bedell said. 

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.