Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Clarification About Vouchers

We’ve gotten a lot of calls since yesterday afternoon about some comments I made about school vouchers at the final Mayoral Primary debate broadcast on KCUR. Apparently these comments have become the talk -of–the-town, even though addressed the same topic throughout the campaign. And the real topic is: Kansas City needs to have excellent public schools in order to be a city that works. I know that words can be distorted amid all the political buzz, I’d like to take a minute to clarify. Also, you’ll find the full text of my forum comments attached below.

It’s true I support choices when it comes to education. But, in this dialogue, it’s very important to note that I added the word “accountable.” This is key, because the devil is always in the details. I will not support anything that funnels public dollars into schools and education systems that are not accountable to the public and fully transparent in the way they do business. Nor will I support anything that robs the Kansas City School District of vital resources.

For instance, I am 100 percent against a bill (HB 808) that is currently in the Missouri House that would drain up to $40 million from the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts through scholarship tax credits that have very little accountability. The Kansas City School Board members I’ve talked with are steadfastly against this, and I stand along with them in opposition. Indeed, I am drafting a letter right now against the bill which I intend to send to Kansas City-area representatives and senators urging them to vote against the bill as constituted.

But more importantly, please note what I said at the forum before I uttered the V-word. I spent the most time talking about the things the city can do immediately to help the schools, and that is doing a better job providing good basic services for the neighborhoods and communities that are built around our schools. Those neighborhoods are struggling amid neglect from City Hall and folks are moving away, and the continuing loss of residents and families really hurts the school district. Likewise, the City’s failure to adopt a rational economic incentive policy, as dictated by the recently adopted City Charter, is undermining the School District’s financial health. The City, which is free to act on its own initiative, needs to step up – but hasn’t.

Second, I said the mayor needs to form a solid partnership with the school board and the superintendent. I intend to do this. As such, I know that it is important to defer to their considerable experience and wisdom on these matters, especially at the onset. I have absolute confidence in the current school board. It’s clear to me that this is one of the best school boards the city has had in the last 30 years. They have an excellent vision for the city with in the recently completed Council of Great City Schools Comprehensive Review. I can assure you that I would not support any school-choice initiative coming out of Jefferson City that undermines these efforts, or which the current school board does not support. That’s why I’m going to speak out against HB 808 and, as Mayor, I will continue to speak out on issues that will have an impact on our schools. We need to work with our schools.

I know this may be a controversial issue. But I’ve never been one to shy away from controversy. And I have never been one to shy away from the hard work of honest, diligent and thorough analysis. Analysis and examination lead to learning, they lead to the potential for improvement. I believe it’s in the best interest of our city to have an open and dialogue about the tough issues we all face. However, such conversations need clarity and context. If you still have questions about this, or any other issue, my door is always open.

Comments from the forum:

I think the Mayor’s Office ought to be awfully involved [with the school district]. We’ve heard a lot of talk about the school district being a drag on the city, but the city has been a drag on the school district. In the neighborhoods where the schools are, often there’s trash, there’s crime, there’s joblessness. There’s real neighborhood-level problems that the city could do a lot better job. You know, infrastructure issues. The city could do a lot better job of providing good basic services to those areas.

We’ve lost over 100,000 people from the urban core over the last couple of decades. Well no wonder the school district is in trouble. We need to encourage people to get moving back into Kansas City. And that will begin to stabilize the school system.

I’ve got two things that I say with regard to schools. First, you’ve got to be an active partner, working with them listening to them, sharing ideas, sharing information. Secondly, I support some sort of accountable parental choice. Vouchers, charter schools, that sort of thing. Because if these families simply cannot bring themselves to send their kids to the Kansas City School District – and my kids have gone there, my son’s a senior at Lincoln Prep right now – if they can’t bring themselves to send their kids there, then I don’t want them to move, because that doesn’t help the school system at all.

(Criticism truncated.)

You know, I can’t believe, given all the trouble that the city faces, all the challenges that we have, how many defenders of the status quo I keep hearing all the time on every issue. The fact of the matter is that what we’re doing isn’t working. Enrollment in the Kansas City School district has dropped from 35,000 to 21,000 over the last 15 years or so. What are you going to do?

Right now, today, if you’ve got money, you can send your kid to Pembroke or whatever. [But] look at that middle class family that says, “I am not going to put my kids in that school district. Funkhouser’s going to try to fix the school district, with the superintendent and with the board, but I can’t wait until someday maybe we get it fixed, when I’ve got a family that is going to move today.”


Kristi in Midtown said...

Dear Funk - I was excited to vote for you today and really like the way the numbers look tonight. We are a midtown family that pulled thier son out of the crappy public schools and drive him across town to private school. While we want to stay in midtown when buying our first home I have to admit the temptation to be closer to his private school in Raytown is tempting. Please don't discount vouchers I resent paying taxes into a failing status quo - Kristi

supergirlest said...

i see you're in. congrats are in order!

off topic, but...

what are your plans for the city, in terms of the global climate change threat?

Heidi said...

On to the general election in March! Cool day for KC.