Education – Kansas City Style

The plan will leave the district operating 33 schools, the fewest in 120 years. The district’s enrollment in 1889 was less than 18,000 — the same as its current enrollment. At its peak in the late 1960s, Kansas City was using more than 100 buildings and serving some 75,000 students. – Kansas City Star

As the school system in Kansas City, Missouri takes the national stage it is unfortunate that the reason is not because of better student achievement or more students graduating and going off to college. Instead it is because after decades of mismanagement and instability the current superintendent had to make some tough decisions. These decisions should have been made years ago as the board sit idly by while every school year more and more students left the district, but the school board chose to continue to kick the can down the road expecting some miracle to increase enrollment despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

I expect faith and looking for miracles from my religious leaders but not from elected members of the school board. There job was to evaluate the data and make planning decisions based on that data not continuing to placate a shrinking population. Each year parents in the district were voting by removing their kids from the district. I also expect stability in administration of the district’s curriculum and staff. Again we did not receive it. Instead we have had 26 superintendents in the last 39 years with a number of acting and interim folks at the helm of what can only be described as a troubled school district.

In a school district were only 30% of the students read at grade level and with a drop-out rate of 50% you would think that there would be some sense of urgency and commonality of purpose. Unfortunately in Kansas City you would be wrong. You see the school district problem is just a microcosm of the problems that have plagued Kansas City from the 60’s and 70’s. You see Kansas City is one of the most segregated cities in America. As a young man I recognized this fact and when I went away to college I promised myself that I would never return. At 17, I realized that no matter what I did at college I would be forever constricted in Kansas City. In Kansas City the racial lines are clearly defined and although few people talk about them we all know where they exist and to many they are stifling. You live in this area and you only socialize with these folks.

The Kansas City school district is 86% percent minority students and 80% of those students are receiving free or reduced lunches. What this means is that the school district is predominately minority and predominately poor. Since its peak enrollment of 75,000 the district has lost over 60,000 students. What that tells me is that those students who could have gotten out have left and what we are left with are the most difficult students to educate. But as with every issue in Kansas City it is cast in racial terms so the politics of race and division have trumped the welfare of the students. How many more students must the district lose before this becomes a priority for city leaders? Rather than developing a strategy to overcome these difficult challenges city officials and the school board are locked in this ninja death match where personal agendas and appealing to peoples worst angels are substituted for substantive discussion.

The unfortunate truth is that no matter how bad a system is if it is allow to continue it is because someone is profiting from it. Both sides of the racial divide in Kansas City are willing to sacrifice generation after generation of kids primarily minority kids for the sake of continuing this factionalism. The problem with a system like this is that both sides become very adept at framing issues in racial terms. One side states that there are no racial issues and the other that everything is a racial issue. It is very difficult to come together to solve major challenges when there is so much polarization. This was played out in the voting on the decision to close the schools which of course broke along racial lines. It took the courage of one African-American board member to enact this plan. My question to the other board members is this, “What is your plan to address a district that is operating at capacity when you have the student body at 40% capacity? Do you continue to ignore the reality like you have for years that your population is shrinking and your product is being rejected?

City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks, speaking to the board, lamented that the school closures will hurt the city’s central core. “Continuing the blighting of the urban core,” she said, “is scandalous and shameful.” – Kansas City Star

Instead of getting real answers to serious problems we get sound bites that play great to a certain constituency but adds nothing to the public discourse or to solving the problems. How anyone who has presided over this debacle can still remain at the head of this board is beyond me. This demonstrates the lack of priority that not only the city government puts on this issue but the public at large. We should realize that these aren’t their kids, they are all of our kids and act accordingly. Of course the answer will not be to replace those whose leadership is failing instead we will fire this superintendent and blame him for a dysfunctional system that he inherited and did not have the authority to change. How many more students, families, and jobs must we lose before someone takes this matter seriously? The three largest determinants to business development and relocation are public safety, schools, and a trained workforce. How are you doing Kansas City?

Many of us believe that wrongs aren't wrong if it's done by nice people like ourselves. - Author Unknown

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