Money and Good Intentions Won’t Fix Our Schools

Last week the media reported the apparently shocking news that the Kansas City, Missouri School District (KCMSD) school board voted 5-4 to close nearly half of its schools, 26 of 61 schools in the district. But those familiar with the district were not surprised.  The real question is not why the school board has decided to close so many schools but why it took them so long.  In Complex Justice I describe the long, agonizing, and costly desegregation case of Missouri v. Jenkins. It is that case which delayed this day of reckoning.  Unfortunately most coverage of the case has neglected to mention this fact.

In the mid 1980s, federal district court judge Russell Clark ordered a complete overhaul of the school district.   No expense was spared.  All told the court spent more than $2 billion in its quest to improve the KCMSD.  Every high school and middle school and half the districts elementary schools became magnet schools with special themes such as classical Greek, Slavic studies, and agribusiness.  Special themes required special facilities such as a model United Nations facility with simultaneous translation capability, petting zoos, and robotics labs.  One high school was so extravagant it was dubbed the “Taj Mahal.”

When Judge Clark’s remedial program began in the mid 1980s the school district enrolled 35,000 students compared to more than 70,000 in the late 1960s. (Today it enrolls just over 17,000).  During the 1970s the school district had experienced a massive exodus of middle-class white and black students. A series of destructive and divisive teacher strikes had undermined parental confidence in the school system. Everyone who could afford to escape fled to the suburbs. However, because of ineffectual leadership, the district maintained a large stable of partially filled buildings.  No one was willing to make the politically unpopular but necessary decisions to close underused schools.  The plaintiff’s attorney, Arthur Benson, and his expert witnesses assured Judge Clark that if he ordered the requested improvements the school district would draw tens of thousands of white students from the suburbs back into the district. Much like The Field of Dreams, the premise was “If you build it they will come.”

But the students never came.  Sadly at the same time Judge Clark was pouring money into the district, the quality of education declined for Kansas City’s minority students. Test scores fell and levels of racial isolation increased.  African-American parents grew so disillusioned that many formed an organization devoted to taking over the school district and ending the case.  Despite the academic failure of students in the system the school district was kept afloat, by judicially mandated largesse allowing it to avoid the difficult decision to close largely empty schools.  In fact, the schools closed last week received tens of millions of dollars under the desegregation plan.  Absent Missouri v. Jenkins the school district would have been forced to gradually close schools and would have avoided a wrenching and traumatic mass closing.  The central lesson of the case is that courts are a poor venue for making educational policy.  But it also testifies to the folly of trying to spend our way to educational utopia.

Ironically, the board member casting the decisive vote to close the 26 schools was Arthur Benson, the same attorney who led the lawsuit from 1977 to its conclusion in 2003. While many, including myself, have criticized his misguided educational proposals, he has tried to put his hard won knowledge to good use by joining the school board two years ago.  Instead of focusing on exotic but educationally distracting programs, he has spent his tenure on the board trying to focus on providing a good and fiscally sustainable education for the district’s students. One wishes Benson well in his effort to help the children of Kansas City in the twilight of his career. But it’s difficult not to think of what could have been had he used his formidable gifts and intellect to help the school district in more productive ways than litigation over the past three decades.  In the many years I studied the case, I never found a single person, even among his most ardent opponents, who questioned Benson’s integrity or sincerity.  He always had the best of intentions.  But good intentions do not guarantee good public policy. Certain roads, as Missouri v. Jenkins reminds us, are paved with them.

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