This fall, fewer than half of all public school students in Kansas City, Missouri will return to their former classrooms. Due to budget constraints and declining student enrollment, the district is closing nearly 30 of its 61 public schools.
The number of public school students in the Kansas City Missouri School District has been decreasing steadily for decades. Whereas in the 1960s over 70,000 students attended KCMSD public schools, today that number is less than 18,000. The school district’s history of political turmoil led to families who could afford it either relocating to the suburbs or opting to send their children to private schools. Even a judicial mandate in the 1980s that pumped $2 billion into the schools couldn’t win them back nor could it improve test scores.
KCMSD is now left with empty buildings, little of the $2 billion, and the majority of its students struggling academically. The New York Times reports that in most Kansas City schools, less than 25 percent of students are at grade level. Like youth in many of America’s urban schools, these students are faced with limited options. Families who can’t afford to move elsewhere are trapped in a failing system and their children’s futures are dictated by the decisions of school administrators. One mother explained, “I don’t want my kids in this district, going through all this disruption. But I can’t move, and I don’t have transportation. So, this is it.” Parents are concerned about their children’s education but see nowhere to turn.
It is inconceivable that in today’s world of technological advancement, at a time in history when students have more information readily available to them than ever before, America’s children would be denied access to a quality education when particular school buildings close. Through online learning all children can have access to a world of knowledge. Online learning enables students in low-income areas to be freed from geographic confines, thus helping to erase the achievement gap. It gives students access to high quality teachers from other districts and states, and provides them with content from around the globe. Furthermore, it frees up money for struggling districts, because, as Terry Moe and John Chubb point out in their 2009 book, Liberating Learning, “Schools can be operated at lower cost, relying more on technology (which is relatively cheap) and less on labor (which is relatively expensive).”
Virtual education is already successfully advancing learning opportunities in many school districts across the country, and research indicates that students are benefiting. Missouri need look no further than neighboring Kansas’ Wichita Public Schools. Wichita schools combined virtual education and traditional public schools to create comprehensive credit-recovery and drop-out programs. An evaluation of the program by the Innosight Institute found that:
“The program has allowed adults and youth who failed to complete high school–including teenage mothers and former gang members–a second chance to earn diplomas and escape the lasting economic disadvantages of dropping out, such as unemployment, poverty or crime. Since the program’s founding in 1999, the dropout-recovery portion has served 3,722 students and produced 974 graduates. The program has also prevented students from leaving high school in the first place by allowing them to retake courses they had failed or dropped.”
Florida provides another example. In this state, students are given access to funding to take supplemental courses online. During the 2008-2009 school year, 154,000 students took courses from the Florida Virtual School, the largest school of its kind in the nation.
The Kansas City School District may have a history fraught with upheaval and dysfunction, but its past need not dictate its future. Innovative reforms like online education can increase educational opportunities, decrease school costs, and help children succeed. Instead of closing doors, school districts can open a world of possibilities through online learning.