In Kansas City, School's Out
The closure of almost half of Kansas City's schools shows what can happen when the wealthy opt out, and services suffer
Twenty-nine out of 61 Kansas City, Missouri, schools will soon be shuttered in a desperate bid by the struggling school district to stave off bankruptcy. At the same time, close to one-quarter of the city's school employees will lose their jobs.
While many districts around the country are closing under-enrolled-in or low-performing schools in an effort to save money, the scale of KC's decision puts it in a league of its own. Students around the city will be disrupted by the changes, as they lose teachers, have to travel further to school each morning, and possibly see their class sizes grow.
The number of students in Kansas City's public schools - 18,000 - would indicate that it is a small town. But there's not much that's small about Kansas City. In fact, the core of the city, which is Missouri's largest urban hub, has nearly half a million residents, and the broader metro area is home to approximately 2 million people.
Yet for decades its public schools have been in crisis and have haemorrhaged students.
For 26 years, Kansas City was under the largest court-ordered desegregation plan in American education history. At first this provided an opportunity to improve the system, injecting $2bn into local schools. But over time the benefits unleashed by the case were undermined by opposing demographic and political trends: Kansas City was bedeviled by white flight; and, eventually, it saw a near-total exodus of the middle classes, of all colours, into suburban school districts, charter schools and private schools. A few years ago, eight schools went so far as to secede from the school district, joining a suburban district that provided more resources to students.
By the time the desegregation case ended, in 2003, the city was no longer discriminating against African American students; but at the same time it was increasingly unable to provide quality public school education to any student. It had become a poster-child for educational dysfunction.
As a result, the schools that remained under the jurisdiction of the Kansas City school district saw their enrollment shrink by about 75% in recent decades, even as the region's total population has grown. A number of schools were more than half-empty.
In many ways, Kansas City represents the depressing end-point I warned about last week in my article on California's education cuts: a setting in which those with options have exercised them by opting out of the state school system, leaving the rump public sector both shrivelled and denuded of influential supporters in the community.
This week's decision to downsize the system by close to 50% might well be the least bad option remaining to the board of education in the city given these harsh realities; but necessity doesn't make these truths any less depressing.
If there are lessons to be learned from Kansas City's dismal experiences, they are about the importance of holistic thinking: of looking for ways not just to desegregate schools but to preserve integrated, economically diverse urban cores; of providing middle-class families with reasons to continue using public services; of building up the notion of common community again so that the public sector flourishes rather than withers. Absent this, Kansas City might well represent a glimpse of a depressing American future: one in which those with resources opt out, en masse, from any and all public services, leaving the public sector to stumble drunkenly from one crisis to the next, a miserable-looking shadow of once-great glories.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited