Under its former chief executive Carl Schramm, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation began to cultivate a broader reputation beyond its home base, shifting from small grants for local nonprofits to larger, more targeted projects in education and entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, that move fueled a perception that Kauffman was turning its back on its home city.
Since Schramm's ouster and replacement by Kansas City business leader Tom McDonnell in 2013, Kauffman has begun to repair its image at home. However, those efforts stumbled after a recent report that called for dismantling the troubled Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS). The report, commissioned by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and funded by Kauffman and the Hall Family Foundation, was released in January 2014 and called for replacing KCPS, which lost its state accreditation in 2010, with a system of independent neighborhood schools overseen by an entity known as a Community Schools Office, that would retain some centralized functions, such as maintenance and enrollment.
The report's declaration that it was neither a call for privatization nor for an all-charter school system did not stop some KCPS advocates from suspecting such motives between the lines. Some saw similarities between the neighborhood school network advocated by the report and the foundation's Ewing Marion Kauffman charter schools. Kauffman opened the first school in 2011 and plans to open its third campus — a high school — later in 2014.
Aaron North, vice president of education at Kauffman, called the funder's approach to education "sector neutral," saying, "We're looking for what works. What we're trying is to do things that are replicable and accessible by other schools."
Airick Leonard West, president of the Kansas City school board, said Kauffman's work in education is beneficial when done in collaboration with KCPS and Teach For America, and expressed a wish for more communication ahead of the report.
“All scholars benefit when the adults communicate,” West told the Kansas City Star. “We’ve had great research in partnership with them in the past. Let’s do more of that.”
The proposal to dismantle KCPS for a decentralized system appears to be dead in the water. Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro's recent proposal to the state board for improving troubled schools in Missouri did not include the report's recommendations.
The Kauffman Foundation, under McConnell's leadership, will continue striving to be a think-tank and laboratory for new ideas in education, while simultaneously continuing its commitment to its home base. McConnell noted in an interview with the Kansas City Star that local projects still account for nearly 75 percent of its expenditures.
In education, those projects include not only the Kauffman schools network, but also projects involving KCPS and other area school systems. One such program is the KC STEM Alliance, which promotes science, technology, engineering, and math education in 32 local school districts, including KCPS. Kauffman also has collaborated with Teach For America to bring hundreds of new teachers into KC classrooms. Kauffman also supports the postsecondary ambitions of low-income KC students through its Kauffman Scholars program, which provides college preparation and tuition for 1,500 students.