John Covington hesitated before becoming this city’s 26th school superintendent in 40 years. A blunt-talking African American from Alabama, he attended the Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles, which prepares leaders for urban school districts, and when he asked people there if he should come here, their response, he says, was: “Not ‘no,’ but ‘Hell, no!’ ” He says they suggested that when flying across the country he should take a flight that does not pass through this city’s airspace.
How did this pleasant place become so problematic? Remember the destination of the road paved with good intentions.
This city is just 65 miles down the road from Topeka, Kan., from whence came Brown v. Board of Education , the fuse that lit many ongoing struggles over schools and race. Kansas City has had its share of those struggles, one of which occurred last year when Covington took office with a big bang: He closed 26 of the district’s 61 schools. Kansas City had fewer students but twice as many schools as Pueblo, Colo., where Covington had been superintendent.
Thirty-five years ago, Kansas City’s district had 54,000 students. Today it has fewer than 17,000. Between then and now there was a spectacular confirmation of the axiom that education cannot be improved by simply throwing money at it.
In the 1980s, after a court held that the city was operating a segregated school system, judicial Caesarism appeared. A judge vowed to improve the district’s racial balance by luring white students to lavish “magnet schools” offering “suburban comparability” and “desegregative attractiveness.” And he ordered tax increases to pay the almost $2 billion bill for, among other things, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a planetarium, vivariums, greenhouses, a model United Nations wired for language translation, radio and television studios, an animation and editing lab, movie editing and screening rooms, a temperature-controlled art gallery, a 25-acre farm, a 25-acre wildlife area, instruction in cosmetology and robotics, field trips to Mexico and Senegal, and more.
For decades critics of the public schools have been saying, “You can’t solve educational problems by throwing money at them.” The education establishment and its supporters have replied, “No one’s ever tried.” In Kansas City they did try. To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.
Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil–more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.
The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.
The Kansas City experiment suggests that, indeed, educational problems can’t be solved by throwing money at them, that the structural problems of our current educational system are far more important than a lack of material resources, and that the focus on desegregation diverted attention from the real problem, low achievement.
Former Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater served in Kansas City prior to taking a position with the local schools.