School & District Management

A Hard Lesson For Kansas City’s Troubled Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — April 26, 2000 10 min read
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Twenty-three years ago, where two rivers meet in Missouri, there was a dream. Poor black students would overcome the vestiges of discrimination, their test scores rising as they studied side by side with wealthier white students in a resurrected Kansas City school district.

In the prairie city whose divided heart once epitomized a nation’s conflict over slavery, $2 billion has been spent to transform a crumbling school system into a phoenix of equal opportunity. But only part of the dream has come true. The district now boasts facilities that are indisputably impressive. But the teaching and learning that take place inside them still are deficient enough that the state last year revoked its powerful stamp of approval: accreditation.

As the date nears for that potentially far-reaching decision to take effect next week, the rare and stinging rebuke has set off a round of soul-searching in people who have watched the nation’s most ambitious and expensive desegregation plan unfold. How can it be that even billions can’t turn the district around?

From the anguished reflection, answers have begun to emerge. The original vision of a magnet system that would draw white students from the suburbs may well have been flawed at its inception. It was hobbled even further by a series of legal setbacks, near-constant changes in district leadership, woefully inadequate teacher training, and a nonexistent core curriculum.

Central figures in the 1977 lawsuit that led to the ambitious spending plan now agree in hindsight that it focused too much on dazzling physical improvements and too little on educational ones.

“My heart is heavy,” said Helen Ragsdale, the Kansas City school board treasurer, who attended all-black public schools there in the 1930s and ‘40s. “We’re not any better off than we were 23 years ago.”

Long-Term Implications

When the 32,000-student district was evaluated by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last year, it was found to be acceptable in two of the three areas of examination: “resources,” which examines staffing and programming patterns, and “process,” which looks at curriculum, instruction, and governance.

But the Kansas City schools flunked every one of 11 indicators under “performance"—the category that examines student test scores, dropout and attendance rates, and measures of college and vocational preparation. For that reason, the district’s accreditation was revoked, a move scheduled to become effective May 1.

The loss of accreditation is significant in several ways. The district faces a monetary drain of unknown proportions, since the decision gives students the right to attend school elsewhere at district expense.

And, if the system doesn’t improve, it could face consequences as profound as a breakup. John A. Rios, who served on the Kansas City school board for six years, including the last two as president, said it has been difficult to improve achievement under a succession of federal judges and superintendents. The desegregation case is on its third federal judge, and the district’s current superintendent, Benjamin Demps, is the 19th in 30 years, says district spokesman David A. Smith.

The state’s standards for accreditation, Mr. Rios said, are virtually impossible to meet in a district where seven of 10 students are poor. District statistics show, for example, that between 1994 and 1999, Kansas City reduced its high school dropout rate from 14.5 percent to 9 percent. The state, however, demands a five-year average dropout rate of 10 percent—a figure Kansas City missed by half a percentage point—so the state denied the district any points in that category.

Jack E. Goddard, the district’s program-monitoring officer, added that it has been hard to maintain a focus on achievement while “serving multiple masters"—the court, its appointed monitoring committee, the state, and the local school board. But he believes the district will regain provisional accreditation—approval on at least four of the 11 performance indicators—by late fall.

Individual schools are accredited by their states or by one of six regional associations. According to the Education Commission of the States, 30 states evaluate whole districts for accreditation.

Little research exists to show how many districts have lost accreditation, but experts in the field say such a step is highly unusual. Means other than accreditation, such as state takeovers, are often used to leverage improvement in lagging districts, said Susan H. Fuhrman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education.

Fearful of the consequences if it doesn’t improve, the Kansas City district is working intensively with a team from the state education department to implement state standards and the district’s newly designed core curriculum, with a particular focus on teacher training. Marilou Joyner, the assistant state commissioner who heads that team, calls it a “massive undertaking” that will bring a long-lacking focus to the district.

As it works toward improvement, the district will have to contend with the impact of the growing charter school movement, which has drained 3,000 students and $23 million this school year from the district and its coffers, leaving a crunch in its $250 million budget.

The Kansas City system will also be burdened with one immediate penalty of being unaccredited: paying the transportation and nonresident tuition for students who may now choose because of the loss of accreditation to attend school in a neighboring, accredited district.

If it doesn’t improve sufficiently in two years, the district faces “mandatory restructuring.” It could be broken up into smaller districts or parceled out and annexed to adjoining districts, said state Commissioner of Education Robert E. Bartman. Alternatively, the state could choose a panel of three people from the district, who would then appoint a chief executive officer to run it, he said.

Mr. Bartman hopes the looming threat of such consequences will keep the district focused on its most important purpose: student achievement. He believes that goal has too often gotten “lost in the noise about making sure court orders were followed.”

Extensive Renovations

The federal lawsuit brought by black families 23 years ago sought a better racial balance in the schools, many of which at that time were 90 percent black. The original idea was to give African-American students access to better schools in the suburbs by consolidating the city system with adjacent districts, but that approach was shot down by the court in 1984. That ruling, some experts say, made it virtually impossible to integrate a district where 70 percent of the students were black.

So the plaintiffs came up with a system of magnet schools that would lure white students from the suburbs voluntarily. U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark approved that plan over a three-year period beginning in 1985, and the money started flowing, mostly from the state.

Between the mid-1980s and last year, about $700 million went into rebuilding or renovating the district’s 72 schools. Magnet programs, with themes such as technology, French immersion, and classical Greek, were installed in all the high schools and middle schools and more than half the elementary schools.

With the remaining $1.3 billion, the district hired more than 1,600 teachers, gave all teachers raises, spent millions training them, and reduced their average class sizes from the 30s to the low 20s. Libraries, art, music, and physical education, long gone from many district schools, returned. After-school and prekindergarten programs took shape.

The number of bus routes skyrocketed as white students were brought in from the suburbs and other students were driven to schools of their choice anywhere in the district. At the height of the program, per-pupil spending exceeded $10,000.

For a while, it seemed to be working. Scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills inched up, said Arthur A. Benson II, a Kansas City lawyer who represents the plaintiffs and has been a chief architect of the plan. Some schools were better-balanced racially, with 1,500 to 2,000 white suburban students choosing city schools each year.

But most of those students left after a year because of the disappointing quality of education or problems with transportation, said Eugene E. Eubanks, the University of Missouri professor who led the court-appointed monitoring committee for the desegregation plan.

In the race to build fancy facilities, “there was some neglect in trying to build an infrastructure around a teaching-and-learning process, having a rich curriculum and an instructional staff that is prepared and committed to deliver that enriched curriculum,” Mr. Eubanks said.

In repeated reports to the court and the parties in the case, the monitoring committee urged a greater focus on curriculum and assessment, professional development, and accountability. But the response, Mr. Eubanks said, was “what you often get from urban districts—'we’re working on it.’”

Clinton Adams Jr., a district parent who has been a vocal advocate for improvement, said a group of black parents saw that despite the jazzy exterior, good teaching and learning were lacking. They researched good programs and proposed them, he said, but were often received with “patronizing, condescending attitudes or excuses.” In a recent interview, Mr. Adams recalled that one administrator even told him: “‘It’s not about a quality education. It’s about integration.’”

The district “misspent” $9 million a year on teacher training that was so unengaging that many teachers took sick days rather than attend, said Mr. Benson, the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the desegregation case.

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a crippling blow to the Kansas City magnet system, ruling that the district could no longer make the state pay for recruiting students from outside its boundaries because the discrimination that sparked the lawsuit took place inside the district.

That ruling paved the way for the state to be dismissed from the case within a couple of years by agreeing to pay $320 million.In the wake of those developments, the Kansas City school board has scrambled to pare its budget, notably by closing down most of the magnet system. The white suburban students are gone, and the minority population of the district has moved upward once again.

Last November, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple dismissed the desegregation suit, saying the district had done all it could to eliminate segregation. But a federal appeals court reinstated the case in January, saying the district still must narrow the achievement gap between black and white students.

Uphill Battle

As the district tries to navigate those waters, Mr. Benson looks back with a mix of pride and regret. He and others believe the first-class facilities, smaller classes, and other strides made under the plan still offer a chance for great achievement. But he wishes he had forced a stronger focus on educational quality.

“We did all the easy but expensive things,” he said, “but not the inexpensive, dauntingly difficult things, like changing the way students learn and teachers teach.”

From the start, demographic trends such as urban middle-class flight made Kansas City’s plan an uphill battle. A 1996 book by the Project on School Desegregation at Harvard University concluded that “magnets, when used alone, are simply not powerful enough to overcome the economic and demographic trends that have increased the racial isolation of the inner city.”

And experts such as David J. Armor, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., believe it is misplaced to hope that desegregation plans will by themselves improve educational achievement, because students’ socioeconomic deprivation cannot be overcome by school offerings.

Many still view the traditional approach to desegregation as inherently valuable. William L. Taylor, a Washington lawyer who has worked on desegregation cases for four decades, said that when courts find deliberate segregation has harmed children, “it’s right to desegregate, because every bit of evidence suggests it’s not only the right legal remedy but it’s educationally sound.”

But he lamented that there have been times when “we lawyers haven’t looked beyond the surface, deeply enough, to think through what types of plans will be the ones that are actually going to make a difference.”

Looking back, many in Kansas City wish there had been fewer swimming pools and more well-trained teachers and inspired curriculum. “You don’t need all those fancy things for a good education,” said Betty Preston, the president of the Missouri board of education. “You don’t have a formula for success when you just throw money at a problem.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as A Hard Lesson For Kansas City’s Troubled Schools

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