Negotiations between Académie Lafayette and Kansas City Public Schools recently came to an abrupt end. I’ve spent the last two years engaging community members around solutions to education in the city, so last week, as I sat in coffee shops, or on the playground everyone I ran into had something to say about this latest development.
I’ve talked to supporters of both organizations, school board members, Académie Lafayette and district teachers and parents. No one seems pleased.
The failed negotiations have once again exposed a deeper division in our urban community, one that goes beyond those two sides of the negotiating table. While race is not the only factor at play in this situation, one cannot understand the current state of education in our city without first understanding the role race has played in our city’s urban school district.
Many white people in my parent’s generation, including my father, remember when their parents pulled them out of the city schools and headed for the suburbs. When black families first moved into their neighborhood, my father’s parents were holdouts, refusing to accept the common belief that blacks and whites should not live in the same neighborhoods. But once the schools were desegregated and busing began, my father’s family moved just south of the Kansas City district boundary. Right or wrong, that was their reality, and my inheritance.
But many white families had already left, simply due to the prospect of having to share sidewalks and block parties with black families. This is the other major factor at play: the deliberate scheme of the real estate industry in the 1950s and ’60s to sell houses to black families in traditionally white neighborhoods, thus spurring a mass exodus to the newly built suburbs, where a lot of money was to be made by developers and real estate agents. Along with the white people went their money, and the city experienced a significant decline in resources.
The current state of education in our city is the result of the collective failure of white culture to embrace black citizens into full citizenship, which includes not only the right to respect and inclusion but also the right to good housing and a good education. Since we know that a significant population on our city’s east side still lacks access to both, it should be our collective imperative to find solutions. Those solutions involve more creative, constructive and meaningful conversations across racial lines than have ever been attempted.
Which brings me back to the failed negotiations between Académie Lafayette and Kansas City Public Schools. Some in our community see in the district nothing but failure and wish for its ultimate demise. Some see in Académie Lafayette nothing but subtly racist whites intent on destroying equality in education.
But many in our urban community simply want good schools for our kids and actually value racial and socioeconomic diversity—not always perfectly, but earnestly. We’re not as loud, but we are the majority.
Community leaders should keep trying to find creative solutions that will benefit our entire city. In the school negotiations over Southwest High School, there weren’t bad actors on either side. Both sides had their priorities and boundaries, for sure, but I think we can trust that everyone involved also had in mind the tens of thousands of children in our city, the ones whom we all want to see receive a world-class education.
There is no better way to truly make Kansas City a place for entrepreneurism and creativity than finding innovative ways to provide successful education to all of our children. But before we reach for solutions, we must be willing to acknowledge the depths of the problem, which includes our reluctance to work across lines of racial and socio-economic differences.
All cities in America face a crisis in urban education. Let’s become the exception.
Andrew Johnson of Kansas City is a co-founder of the Midtown Community School Initiative and the director of the Pilgrim Center.