Mayor James takes risks on KC schools

Steve Kraske of the Kansas City Star writes that Mayor Sly James is betting his future on the schools, as he vies to take control of the troubled district while the state considers a takeover. The columnist strikes a down note, noting that James is a Marine and a lawyer by training, not a school administrator (Is that necessarily a bad thing, considering many administrators’ track record in this district?). He can’t eliminate urban poverty and give every child a good home.

All that is true. If James gets the control he wants, it’s on him. He owns it. And it’s hard to see how even the most successful singular leader can make a major turnaround in just a few years. Nevertheless, without having followed every twist and turn of this latest crisis in the district, I like the fact that James wants to take control. To assume responsibility. It would be hard to do any worse than the current state of affairs.

The only question is, could the state do any better? That’s a matter of speculation at this point. A state takeover signals just how dire the situation is, and may offer some relief from local bickering over problems and solutions. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that management from above and layers of bureaucracy has helped create the mess seen today.

When state and federal policymakers want to “help” local school districts by “giving” them money, locals must remember there are always strings attached. That’s just common sense. Yet education types everywhere hoot and howl whenever someone attempts to micromanage them or restrict them. Usually it’s the same people who constantly clamor for more state and federal “aid.” Resources without responsibility, say some public education backers.

Do they also not expect that in the bizarre world of public education where human resource decision-making is so regimented and restrained, the inevitable alternative is micromanagement of personnel? Autonomy without accountability, cry the teachers unions. Myriad tests and measurements, and a battery of mind-numbing, soul-sucking regulation are the impotent, annoying substitutes for this refusal within public education to accept responsibility or accountability.

In the interest of local control, a mayoral takeover at the city level is probably superior to an education department takeover at the state level, in theory. Again, I don’t know all the specifics of the current situation, and I don’t know Sly James or what his learning curve would be like. But if he can convince DESE and others that he’s the man with a plan, then more power to him.

As for what he should do if and when that happens – or what the state or anybody else should do – that’s another discussion for another day. For starters, every student, parent, and especially every public educator can start by adopting James’s attitude when it comes to education: It’s on me.

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