Between 1985 and 2003, $2 billion was spent on 35,000 students in the Kansas City Public Schools to attract more white students to the urban district. Courts had concluded that the constitution was being violated by not doing enough to retain and attract white students. Those good intentions pretty much resulted in a blank check that funded failed efforts to desegregate schools and improve education. Test scores continued to decline even after huge sums were spent, and today the district remains almost entirely segregated.
Now, Kansas taxpayers are being asked by the state Supreme Court to substantially increase spending for schools, which the court has declared are way underfunded. Republican-selected experts recommended in a recent study that the state spend up to $2 billion more, phased in over five years, to be shared among not one district like Kansas City, but in 286 districts with their half-million students. The experts posit that such an increase would result in stellar student achievement and sky-high graduation rates.
Skeptics are bound to make a false comparison between the $2 billion spent in Kansas City and the additional $2 billion proposal for Kansas, which also promises tremendous results. “See?” critics proclaim. Kansas City’s experience proves more money buys you nothing but inefficiency with sad outcomes. But the comparison does not hold up.
If we know one thing about the Kansas City experiment, it is that huge sums were squandered on fruitless efforts to achieve desegregation. Improving basic education skills was never the priority.
In Kansas, additional funding will be earmarked for achievement only. Experts usually recommend hiring more teachers, increasing their salaries to attract the best and brightest, and expanding programming, paying attention to students with special needs, including those who may not speak English as their primary language.
The most profound decision in Kansas City — made by outsiders, over the loud protests of parents in the district — was to abandon the neighborhood school concept. Magnet schools replaced neighborhood schools in this harebrained spectacle. Each high school and middle school, and half the elementary schools, were supposed to be themed. Many of the themes of these magnet schools were laughably preposterous.
There was some good that came of the lavish spending in Kansas City, including the much-needed construction of 15 new schools. Most school buildings in the district were in deplorable condition. But inside those walls, misspending was rampant: an Olympic-sized pool with an underwater observation room, racquetball courts, an indoor track. If these amenities did happen to tantalize a very small number of white kids who lived in suburbs far from the district, taxi service was provided. There was not enough demand to warrant buses.
Meanwhile, the result of the district spending more per student than any other district in America at the time was a central staff that mushroomed to 600 administrators — one per 60 students. Teacher salaries were increased, but nothing was done to remove incompetent teachers (a reform needed in Kansas, as well). Clearly, money was grossly mismanaged, and there was little viable leadership.
Kansas City’s failure is held up as a poster child for wasteful spending on schools, with no academic improvement to show for it. But it proves no such thing. The money lavished on that district was geared mostly to attract droves of suburban kids to return. Its main focus was never improvement in scholarship (or even basic proficiency).
Kansas would have an entirely different mission: to achieve excellence in education statewide. The ultimate price tag may not be nearly as high as $2 billion, but it will take a significant number to overcome the gross underfunding of schools over the past 25 years.
If the high court approves the Legislature’s proposal — the deadline is April 30 — it will be up to elected local school boards, top-notch teachers and worthy administrators, with oversight from Topeka, to make certain the additional funding is not squandered and that true statewide educational excellence is ultimately achieved.