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Appeals court sides with KC charter school in its fight with state to remain open

A gavel is on a marble counter.
Tingey Injury Law Firm
The State Board of Education voted and sided with Kansas City's Genesis School after attempts to pull the charter last year.

A Kansas City charter school for at-risk students will be allowed to stay open after an appeal of the state’s decision to revoke its charter.

In a ruling issued last week, the presiding judge of Missouri’s western district court of appeals ruled a charter school has the right to judicial review if the state attempts to shut it down.

The case comes after the State Board of Education and the Missouri Charter Public School Commission pulled the charter of Kansas City’s Genesis School last year, citing poor performance.

The appeals court decision, which follows a Cole County judge’s earlier ruling in favor of Genesis, rejects the State Board of Education’s argument that the board has final authority over a charter’s status.

Mallory McGowin, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), said the department is looking at the ruling for potential procedural changes. Otherwise, she said, the State Board of Education’s role will remain as it is now and continue making decisions about charters.

“The charter model is designed to allow for flexibility to promote innovative approaches to educating students, along with a timely closure when low-performing charter schools fail to meet the academic standards outlined in statute,” she said. “The State Board’s role in this process is critical.”

McGowin could not comment on whether the department planned to appeal the decision.

The original case in Cole County reversed the charter revocation. The State Board of Education’s argument in appellate court was that a 2012 change to the law governing charter schools prevents them from seeking judicial review but it did not challenge the underlying argument.

During the original Cole County hearing, Genesis’s attorneys argued that the state didn’t have enough consecutive years of performance data to justify closing the school.

When the Missouri Charter Public School Commission met to consider the charter early in 2023, the latest performance data was from the 2017-18 school year.

The commission became Genesis’s sponsor in July of 2022 after the State Board of Education removed the University of Missouri’s ability to sponsor Genesis and other low-performing charters.

In April of 2023, the State Board of Education heard Genesis’s appeal. Genesis, a K-8 school with a focus on high-risk students, had low performance scores and average growth, according to an assessment released a month before that hearing.

The school had earned 42.7% on the new annual performance report. The department told school districts the scores, which were calculated under a new system, would not affect accreditation.

The Cole County judge ultimately determined the state’s decision to pull Genesis’ charter was “unlawful and arbitrary” because of the lack of data.

In the appeals court ruling, the judge wrote that Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven noted “deficiencies” in the charter commission’s process. Still, the board made the decision to revoke Genesis’s charter.

The state education department had concerns with the Missouri Charter Public School Commission’s revocation process, McGowin said, but it had “even more significant concerns with allowing a school with long-term, chronic performance issues to remain open, particularly in the face of the educational uncertainty its attending families were facing in planning for the coming school year.”

Chuck Hatfield, the attorney representing Genesis, told The Independent that the case is not likely to change the oversight of charter schools beyond allowing them to appeal administrative decisions.

“The issue the Court of Appeals decided was just whether a charter school has standing, but the underlying problem is they didn’t have [performance] data because of COVID,” he said. “So I can’t imagine that’s gonna happen again.”

For Kevin Foster, executive director of Genesis School, the process was “traumatic.”

“We didn’t find out until July that we were going to be open, and we survived,” he said.

Students were worried, Foster said, about where they were going to attend school, sometimes pulling focus from their schoolwork.

In December, Genesis scored 62% in the newest performance reports from the state’s education department. Kansas City School District scored 66.6%.

Genesis’s score is composed of two factors, performance and continuous improvement, in which the school scored 44% and 92.3%, respectively.

Foster said this illustrates the school’s ability to teach kids who enroll with a lower knowledge base than students in other areas and schools.

Genesis is located in Census Tract 60, an area where around 5% of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree and 31% are below the poverty line. Foster told The Independent that 81% of his students live within three miles of the school.

All the students at Genesis are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared to a statewide rate of 47.4%.

The school markets itself for these students, setting itself as a space for a high-risk population. Foster said the state’s system of accountability deters charter schools like this.

“The accountability system is not designed to encourage people to do this work,” he said. “Not only is it not designed to encourage me to do this work, but now they are literally trying to close us, to take away our ability to do the work.”

The school’s charter will be up for renewal in 2025. Foster hopes a sponsor will continue to partner with Genesis.

“People just have a model of what reform is gonna look like, and a small little community charter school serving an at-risk population just doesn’t fit their model,” he said.

Hatfield said the state’s accountability program may continue to impact charter schools that serve high-risk students.

“That’s a real challenge for the way DESE does their (Missouri School Improvement Program) standards these days,” he said. “The schools that are really focused on highly challenged children, they are going to close a lot of them down if they are not more thoughtful about it.”

The Missouri Charter Public School Commission could not be reached for comment.

The Missouri Independent is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy. It is staffed by veteran Missouri reporters and is dedicated to its mission of relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Jefferson City are made and their impact on individuals across the Show-Me State.
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