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Education Reporter
Historic Desegregation Case Proves a Failure

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KANSAS CITY, MO-After 12 years and $1.8 billion dollars, the effort to desegregate Kansas City, Missouri schools has proved to be a failed experiment. The U. S. Supreme Court called it "the most ambitious and expensive remedial program in the history of school desegregation."

Federal Judge Russell G. Clark, who took over the district in 1984, made desegregation history by ordering "desegregative attractiveness," an ex-travagant spending project designed to lure 5,000 to 10,000 white suburban students to the Kansas City Municipal School District (KCMSD).

The white return never happened. The percentage of minorities has risen to a level higher than when the plan began, test scores for black students have shown no improvement, and dropout rates are 55% and rising.

In 1984, cost wasn't an issue. Clark ordered the KCMSD to build, buy, order, and do anything and everything to reverse the declining trend of Kansas City's schools and make the KCMSD a model for education reformers.

The new school facilities included an Olympic-sized pool with an underwater viewing room, a robotics lab, professional quality recording and television studios, a planetarium, arboretum, zoo, a mock court with a judge's chamber and jury deliberation room, and a model United Nations with simultaneous language translation. Students took exotic field trips to foreign countries and learned foreign languages from native-born teachers imported from Quebec, Belgium, Argentina, and the Cameroons. Sports enthusiasts could enjoy weight rooms, racquetball courts, indoor running tracks, and fencing taught by an Olympic fencing coach. Aspiring actors could study drama and dance in the performing arts school.

To finance the plan, Judge Clark doubled property taxes in Kansas City and made the State of Missouri jointly liable for the desegregation plan. At one point, 44% of Missouri's state budget for elementary and secondary education went to students in Kansas City and St. Louis, who are just 9% of the state total. Clark's historic court-imposed tax was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990.

The KCMSD hardly knew how to handle such a sudden influx of money. The new budget of $300 million per year, which poured in for a decade, did not improve education. The district was notorious for its history of bad credit, its inability to balance its books each year, its bloated bureaucracy, and its reputation for never paying its bills on time. District officials, said attorney and Kansas City education activist Clinton Adams (who is black), acted "like kids in a candy store. They went wild. They misused it, mismanaged it, stole it, and misappropriated it. They were just not prepared for what Judge Clark thrust upon them."

At one point, the district could not account for 23,000 items, including televisions, CD players, bookcases, office furniture, and (temporarily) a baby grand piano. The district spent $40,000 on a trophy case, despite having no trophies to display, and bought nearly 700 computers for classrooms, but let them sit unused until they became obsolete.

Busing routes increased from 100 to 850. "At a given bus stop," said former school board member Paul Ballard, "it was not uncommon to find 10 kids going to 10 different schools." Sometimes the buses would never show up. The district employed four or five times as many administrators as school districts of comparable size.

A major obstacle to improvement was the district's involvement in racial politics. "Race is the first and foremost consideration in almost anything to do with the district," said former school board president Susan Fulson. "In almost any decision, it is first and foremost, either formally or informally."

With a history of high turnover among superintendents, it was easier to concentrate on the "easy expensive" new things (e.g., new buildings, new equipment, new busing plans) rather than the "difficult inexpensive" things that make the difference in children's education, such as appointing a well-qualified superintendent, developing curricula, hiring good teachers and firing bad ones. However, in the KCMSD, firing people was considered unacceptable, politically impossible, and out of the question.

Judge Clark deferred the responsibility to improve the quality of instruction to professional educators, which turned out to be a major cause of failure. According to Clinton Adams, "This district had an opportunity like no other district in the country to really come in and deliver a quality educational program for African-American kids. And they failed."

In 1995, the Supreme Court told Clark to stop using the school district's low test scores as an excuse to maintain control, to give up the unproved theory of "de-segregative attractiveness," and to return the district to local control. Clark ordered the state and the district to negotiate a political solution.

After prolonged negotiations, the two sides could not agree on how to fund the new facilities. Alison Morantz, a Harvard graduate student who wrote a report on the district's desegregation efforts, said that the district today is so overbuilt that "it cannot support [the schools] on the existing tax base."

The case is still in litigation and is expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court again. There is no end in sight, but the lesson is clear that unlimited money does not produce good education.

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