Kansas City’s second act

The budget rumbles begin, but the story in KC has a lot more context.  To start, from the Wall Street Journal (or try the NYT):

The Kansas City Missouri School Board voted Wednesday night to shutter nearly half of its schools in an effort to avoid going broke. The action closes 28 of 58 campuses and eliminates about 700 of the district’s 3,300 jobs, including 285 teachers. […] The Kansas City School District, which serves 18,000 students, was twice as large a decade ago. That decrease has led to cuts in state funding. The district now runs a $12 million monthly deficit and expects to run out of money by 2011. […] Less than one third of elementary school students are reading at or above grade level. In nearly three quarters of the schools only one quarter of the students are characterized as “proficient,” according to the district.

If you are closing 48% of the schools while eliminating only 21% of the jobs, you are either closing schools that are close to empty, or your plan is probably doomed, or more likely both. The origin of this fiscal collapse is the long steady decline in the academic quality of KC public schools, where two-thirds of all elementary school students are already behind at least one grade level.  How did we get here?

Kansas City is best known among educators as the location of one of the great failures in education reform in the history of recorded time, where over $2 billion (and $2B bought a lot more 25 years ago) failed to make a dent in an underperforming system.

In 1985 a federal district judge took partial control over the troubled Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) on the grounds that it was an unconstitutionally segregated district with dilapidated facilities and students who performed poorly. In an effort to bring the district into compliance with his liberal interpretation of federal law, the judge ordered the state and district to spend nearly $2 billion over the next 12 years to build new schools, integrate classrooms, and bring student test scores up to national norms.

It didn’t work. When the judge, in March 1997, finally agreed to let the state stop making desegregation payments to the district after 1999, there was little to show for all the money spent. Although the students enjoyed perhaps the best school facilities in the country, the percentage of black students in the largely black district had continued to increase, black students’ achievement hadn’t improved at all, and the black-white achievement gap was unchanged. (article here)

Money can’t buy you love, and it can’t buy a district high-quality schools.  As the impact of declining budgets starts to creep across Colorado, while dissident voices cry out for educational systems and regulations where quality is a secondary concern, it’s worth noting that high-quality schools do more to protect a district’s financial position than anything else. And if quality goes, it takes a whole lot down with it.

When budgets falter, most interest groups usually try to protect their pet projects or personal interests.  This often hastens the decline.  Quality first.

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