Catastrophe in Kansas City
The effort to integrate the Kansas City public schools is one of the most costly, misguided, and ineffectual programs ever undertaken in America in the name of racial equality. This billion-dollar effort has been so utterly a failure that only good can come of it. Catastrophe as complete as this may shake even a liberal’s confidence. This may well be the high-water mark of the astonishing efforts whites have made to build a society in the name of an illusory equality.
Kansas City came to national attention ten years ago, when federal District Judge Russell Clark ordered the school district to build and staff the best, most expensive public schools in the country—perhaps in the world. They were to be so dazzlingly good that they would both lure white students out of their safe suburbs and raise black student achievement to the white level. Judge Clark was even willing to wield dictatorial power to get what he wanted, looting both the city and the state to fund the gold-plated schools that desegregation was thought to require.
Of course, the grand experiment failed. The wondrous schools were duly built but blacks learned no more in them than before. Whites stayed in the suburbs. And now a recent Supreme Court decision will probably cut off massive subsidies from the state, leaving the city with a hugely expensive system to run and no money. If Kansas City cannot dream up new ways to make whites pay for them, the dream schools will slide back into the ramshackled mediocrity from which Judge Clark thought he had lifted them.
Separate and Equal
The Kansas City, Missouri school district first opened in September 1867, with four schools for whites and one for blacks. The state constitution, like that of sixteen other states at the time, required segregation. A law passed the following year reaffirmed segregation, but required that black schools be equal to white.
Eventually the city was operating one high school and 14 elementary schools for blacks. Almost all of these schools were north of 27th Street, which was the traditional boundary of the Negro quarter. The city also made a serious effort to make the schools equal. Black teachers were paid the same salaries as white, and in most years the city spent approximately as much on black students as it did on whites. During the 1936-37 school year, for example, it cost $79.31 to educate each white elementary school pupil (about $825 in today’s money) and $69.10 to educate a black pupil. In 1940-41, however, the district spent $118.61 on each black high school student but somewhat less—$110.43—on whites.
Even if there was rough equality in the operating budget, blacks were sometimes slighted in the capital budget. Their schools were often old and overcrowded. In 1949, parents of students at the all-black Bruce elementary school sued the city to replace rickety buildings. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld a lower-court denial of relief, arguing that although the Bruce school had no auditorium, gymnasium, or cafeteria, there were white schools in the state that were no better off. Moreover, since the curriculum at the Bruce school was equivalent to that of white schools, the black parents had no grounds for complaint.
The 1950s are now acknowledged to have been the salad days for Kansas City public schools. Sixty-nine thousand students (77 percent of them white) got what was, by today’s standards, a superb education in their segregated schools. The beginning of the end was, of course, 1954.
That year, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Kansas City obediently prepared to desegregate. A color-blind plan was drawn up whereby students would simply attend the schools nearest them, whether they had been all-black or all-white.
Desegregation proceeded so smoothly in 1955 that the Kansas City Star did not even write a story about it. There were no disturbances because housing in the city was so segregated that only a handful of students were affected by integration. Moreover, almost 90 percent of the 921 white children who were to have attended formerly-black schools quietly moved out of their neighborhoods over the summer. When the school year began, only 117 of them were left to integrate the black schools. Their numbers dropped very quickly, and soon voluntary desegregation in Kansas City fit the pattern found all over the country: Almost the only people who crossed the color line were the children of ambitious black parents who wanted their children to attend white schools.
Whites began to drift towards the suburbs, and in 1970 the school district lost its white majority for the first time. Most schools, however, were still either overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly black. By the mid-1970s, two-thirds of the students were black, and the district was showing all the stigmata of a black institution: crumbling buildings, poor discipline, declining test scores.
With so few white students to go around, meaningful integration was no longer possible, and by 1977, the school board was desperate. That year, it sued everyone in sight, in the hope of dragging 18 white, suburban school districts into a single, huge district. Forced busing would then flush precious white children out of the suburbs to rejuvenate Kansas City; and the suburbs would be taxed to pay for it.
Judge Russell Clark got the case but did not make important decisions until six years later. In 1984, he let the terrified suburbs off the hook. Following a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision, he argued that since the suburban districts were not responsible for residential segregation they could not be forced into a shotgun marriage with Kansas City.
It was the next year, 1985, that he hit upon the final solution to the segregation problem: urban schools so extraordinary that bigoted whites would voluntarily abandon their suburbs and private schools to flock to the city and sit next to blacks.
Judge Clark was realistic enough to realize that these schools would have to be spectacular, and spectacular they are. Of the more than $1.4 billion that has been spent in ten years on this “desegregation” plan, $418 million has gone for renovation and new construction, though not always wisely. After a $1 million patch-up of Central High School did not raise it to Judge Clark’s standards, the old school was torn down and the district sank $32 million into a gleaming new one.
Paseo High was another school that Judge Clark pronounced unsalvageable. Built from a type of limestone found nowhere else in the country, it was a cherished architectural landmark. The judge didn’t care. Protesters watched in tears as the school was dynamited on his orders.
The district now has 12 brand new schools—scores of houses had to be bulldozed to make way for some of them—with equipment to make a teacher’s head swim: planetariums, olympic-size swimming pools with underwater observation windows, dust-free diesel mechanics rooms, at least one mock-United Nations wired for simultaneous interpretation, radio and television studios capable of real broadcasting, video editing and animation labs, a moot court complete with jury room and judges chambers, a model Greek village to teach participatory democracy, elementary schools with one personal computer for every two children, etc. etc. These are the famed “magnet schools” that were supposed to attract white children like so many iron filings.
Another $900 million has gone for special staff to operate these wonders, and across-the-board raises for teachers and administrators. There are German- and French-language elementary schools which, of course, must be staffed with native speakers. The former coach of the Soviet Olympic fencing team has been hired—along with an interpreter—to teach Missouri rubes the finer points of sword play. It has been, in short, an unprecedented orgy of spending, overseen by school superintendent, Walter Marks, who has been pleased to see the salary for his position leap from $75,000 to $140,000.
Where did the $1.4 billion come from? Judge Clark raised it through two astonishing acts of judicial dictatorship. In 1987, he unilaterally raised Kansas City property taxes, first from 2.05 percent to four percent and eventually 4.96 percent—the first time in American history that a federal judge has levied taxes. This breath-taking usurpation of power simply ignored an amendment to the Missouri constitution that requires a two-thirds supermajority vote to raise property taxes past 3.25 percent. Judge Clark even tried to impose a surcharge on income taxes, but an appeals court struck this down as an invasion of the province of the state legislature.
When it became clear that Kansas City could be bled no further, Judge Clark decided to pillage the state—but on what grounds? In a flourish of legal non-reasoning, he decided that the state had contributed to segregation in Kansas City by permitting such things as restrictive covenants in deeds and by doing nothing to mix up the races. In penance for these past crimes, the state has been forced to pay more than $800 million to make the city’s schools fit for suburban white people. Needless to say, the state attorney general has repeatedly contested this exaction, but until June (see below) had lost every court battle.
The astonishing thing is that ever since 1955 there has been no school segregation in Kansas City. By the time of Judge Clark’s decisions, no one was even pretending that the city or the state or the school district was discriminating. By no sane reading of civil rights laws can Kansas City be found guilty. It had bad public schools and two-thirds of the students were black. In the never-never land of Judge Clark’s mind, this was unacceptable. It could only be the result of racism, and not just any old racism; this was Government-perpetrated racism in violation of the United States Constitution.
Because he was springing to the defense of that holy document, he appointed himself school district dictator, with the power to eliminate everything he considered a “vestige” of discrimination. In a crowning act of folly, he decreed that he would continue to run the schools until the test scores of black children were appreciably the same as those of whites. So long as blacks did not do as well as whites, the segregation of ages past was still doing its evil work.
What have been the results of this grand experiment? Instructional costs, not including costs of the building program, have more than doubled from $3,094 per pupil per year to $8,000 (during the same period, the state average rose from $2,470 to $3,760). Average classroom size has decreased from 38-47 to 22-27, and the number of school librarians has shot up from 13 to 56. Ten years ago the district had no “counselors” for elementary school students. Now it has 53 of them. All this luxury is lavished on only 36,350 students as opposed to a high of 69,000 in the 1950s. The overall operating budget has leapt in seven years from $142 million to $500 million while the number of students has stayed the same.
Whites have not behaved like iron filings. A comparison of the 1985-1986 school year—the first year of the “magnet” program—with that of 1992-93 shows that white attendance has continued to drop slightly, from 26.4 percent to 25.2 percent. Every year some 1,400 suburban students take the bus into town, but the white turnover rate is very high; most whites go back to suburbia after one or two years. The district has an annual “marketing and recruitment” budget of $1.8 million to lure other whites into town to take their places. Martin Luther King Middle School, which requires uniforms for all students and emphasizes the study of Latin grammar (!), has the best reputation among whites—and manages to attract only 55 students from the suburbs.
The small number of Kansas City whites who send their children to public schools have developed a recognizable pattern of patronizing only the lower grades. The racial performance gap is narrower at these ages and adolescence has not yet turned many blacks into predators and trouble-makers. When it is time to enter four or fifth grade, most white children go to the suburbs or to private school.
What effect has more than a billion dollars had on school performance? During the seven years of Judge Clark’s dictatorship, the dropout rate has climbed from 6.5 percent to 11.4 percent and the average daily senior high school attendance rate has dropped from 81.5 percent to 76.2 percent. The racial gap in achievement levels has remained unchanged, starting with a gap of several months in first grade and growing to two or three years by graduation. Test scores on standardized tests—essentially unchanged—are highest in the elementary grades, which have the most whites.
In short, nothing has turned out as Judge Clark hoped. It is probably true, as the district lamely argues, that even more whites would have fled the district were it not for fencing coaches and planetariums. The district is nevertheless more nonwhite than ever and the racial performance gap continues to yawn, just as it does in every school in every district in every city in every state.
In the white suburbs, in places like Raytown and Lee’s Summit, schools spend less than half the money Kansas City does on each student and get much better results. The Blue Springs district, for example, spends $3,403 per pupil compared to $8,000 per pupil in Kansas city. By the third grade, its students are already 70 to 80 points ahead of Kansas City on the Missouri standardized test (graded from 200 points to 595).
If anything, the school district faces its worst crisis ever. Superintendent Walter Marks, who happily spent hundreds of millions during his three years on the job, was fired in February. In 1994 he managed to find 14 reasons to leave town on school business. Worse still, during a paid leave of absence for back problems, he was filmed by a hidden Kansas City television crew carrying lumber into his new home in Florida. The crew also caught him bounding onto the airplane to come home, but by the time it got to Missouri he had to hobble off with a cane.
The search for a replacement has been hampered by a June decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that finally reins in Judge Clark, and may end the annual tribute from the state. In a 5-4 decision, in which the Clinton administration entered a motion in support of the status quo, the court invalidated most of Judge Clark’s efforts to fight “segregation.” Since the suburban school districts were not drawn along racial lines and cannot be blamed for “segregation” in Kansas City, Judge Clark did not have the authority to consider them as part of his solution. The actions he took to make the city schools more attractive to suburban students were therefore improper.
No one is going to make him tear down the luxury schools. However, he bypassed the collective bargaining procedure to grant raises to school employees in the hope of making the schools more attractive to suburban whites. The raises may be rolled back.
In a remarkable fit of common sense, the Supreme Court ruled that scores on standardized tests are a ridiculous measure of integration, and that the state of Missouri cannot be held financial hostage to poor black performance. After pouring over $800 million into this colossal blunder, the state may finally be off the hook.
Of course, Kansas City has become addicted to the $100 million or so every year that Judge Clark made the state hand over in operating expenses. The city is in a panic at the prospect of running the schools without state money. Once that money is gone, who is going to fix the video editing machine when it breaks down? Who is going to pay the security guards who keep the personal computers and machine shop tools from walking out the door? Who is even going to do simple maintenance on the huge, new, fancy school buildings?
To hazard a prediction, unless Kansas City can find fresh whites to bleed (see sidebar), in 10 years its public schools will be worse than ever. About the time the fencing coaches are laid off, the few remaining whites will lose their taste for the exotic and will clear out. The schools will become grimmer and more savage. As they do in Chicago, Newark, and the Bronx, exhausted teachers will maintain the barest facade of scholarship in what will come to resemble holding pens for young blacks and Hispanics. The only difference will be that in Kansas City, this familiar chaos will reign in what was once the most costly and ambitious school district in the country.
Of course, the Kansas City debacle has been a valuable experiment that has yielded fine data. Anyone but a dreamer could have predicted the results perfectly, but now they are clear enough to startle a liberal: (1) Not even the most opulent schools will tempt more than a handful of whites voluntarily to attend classes that are majority black, and (2) no amount of money can bridge the racial gap in academic performance.