Most cities have a school system. Kansas City has a system of schools.
It’s an important distinction in a metro bisected by a state line, in a city with dozens of charters, in a school district state lawmakers intentionally kept small. This is a place where the quality of education often depends on parents’ ability to navigate a frustratingly complex system.
This Thursday, KCUR and the No Wrong Answers podcast will try to help. We’re hosting a school choice forum at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts. Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell will be there. So will University Academy Superintendent Tony Kline. Parents who’ve had to make these difficult decisions for their kids will share their stories. And I’ll be providing context and perspective as KCUR’s education reporter.
Here’s what two years covering Kansas City schools has taught me: enduring residential segregation means white families are often in a position – quite literally – to make different education decisions than black families. And that means you can’t really talk about school choice in this city without acknowledging Kansas City’s racial dividing lines.
A few weeks ago, the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute put out a report on what researchers at the think tank dubbed “charter school deserts,” places where you’d expect to see charter schools but don’t. They also built an interactive map that overlays schools with census poverty data.
And what it reveals about Kansas City is startling.
“You’ve got an 8.1 percent poverty rate in one census tract and three charter schools in it. You’ve got one with a 45 percent poverty rate and no charters in it,” Amber Northern, senior vice president for Fordham, told me.
At first, she thought something was wrong with the map. Were there really census tracts with a poverty rate of less than 20 percent next to census tracts with a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent?
“I’m sitting in one of them,” I replied. KCUR is on Troost Avenue, historically the city’s racial dividing line. The poverty rate here in Census Track 63, Jackson County, Missouri, is 47.2 percent. Walk across the street, and it dips to 18.1 percent.
You have to zoom way in on Fordham’s map to see Troost Avenue labeled, but if you know anything about the history of racial segregation in Kansas City, you’ll see it. There are fewer charter schools the farther east you get, and the charter schools popular with white families are all west of Troost.
“Wow,” Northern said when I explained this. “I guess I'm just kind of fascinated by what's going on here, which doesn't occur in a lot of other places in the country, which is you actually have charters in middle-income neighborhoods.”
When Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell accepted the district’s top job in 2016, school board member Jennifer Wolfsie sent him the book “Complex Justice: The Case of Missouri v. Jenkins,” by Joshua M. Dunn.
Wolfsie told Bedell it was required reading if he wanted to understand the desegregation case that divided the district and failed a generation of KCPS students. Those are Bedell’s words, not mine. He’s told the story of receiving and reading “Complex Justice” many times, most recently at an American Public Square forum last winter.
“The students the school system didn’t have in mind are now in their 30s and 40s with kids of their own,” Bedell said. “They don’t know how to advocate for their children because no one was there to advocate for them.”
It wasn’t the first time Bedell told me to read “Complex Justice,” and after the forum, I did order a copy. But then it sat on my desk for months. I finally read it last week.
I wish I’d done so sooner. The most salient point in “Complex Justice” – the one that gets missed when people talk about the failed magnet school experiment and white flight to the suburbs – is the fact that by the time Missouri v. Jenkins was winding its way through the courts in the late ’80s and early ’90s, black families in Kansas City didn’t care as much about integrated schools as they did good schools.
With court-ordered desegregation, they got neither.
And that’s worth keeping in mind as KCPS tries to regain full accreditation and improve its image so it can once again present itself as a viable option to families with school-age children. The needs of current students may in fact be very different than the needs of students whose families the district hopes to tempt back.
Late to desegregation
Kansas City’s desegregation case came relatively late, more than 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education (which, if you don’t know much about that landmark ruling, KCUR’s Frank Morris remembered plaintiff Linda Brown in an obituary earlier this year). If it had been filed a few years earlier, the remedy probably would’ve been court-ordered busing, like what went on in St. Louis for decades.
One of the reasons Kansas City didn’t have a desegregation case sooner was because while the city had separate schools for black and white children before Brown v. Board of Ed, they weren’t unequal. At the very least, they weren’t as unequal as schools in other cities. Historically black Lincoln College Preparatory Academy has always been one of the city’s top schools.
But in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled de facto segregation wasn’t OK, either. That’s legalese for when segregation isn’t mandated by law, but it happens anyway (see: discriminatory housing policies that kept black families east of Troost). Soon the Kansas City, Missouri, School District found itself under investigation.
When that happened, the KCMSD school board did something highly unusual: in 1977, it preempted a lawsuit against the district by suing the predominately white suburban districts, the state of Missouri and the federal agency responsible for overseeing school integration.
KCMSD tried to argue that a school district white families were fleeing would never be able to integrate without local, state and federal policies to control for demographics.
That’s true. But in another desegregation case, the Supreme Court had already ruled that neighboring school districts couldn’t be compelled to be part of the solution if they hadn’t caused the problem. All the suburban districts had to do was show they hadn’t intentionally kept black students out, and they were dismissed as plaintiffs.
There’s one more thing you need to know about the history of KCMSD: at a time when the city was aggressively annexing the small communities around it, Missouri lawmakers changed state law to stop the school district from expanding.
It used to be that any Missouri city with more than 500,000 residents could only have one school district. But in 1957, with Kansas City’s population approaching half a million, lawmakers bumped it up to 700,000. This ensured that the district would not automatically merge with Center, Hickman Mills and other school systems that at the time were majority white. When Kansas City’s population peaked in the late 1960s, it remained under the 700,000 threshold.
So as Kansas City grew and absorbed some of its inner ring suburbs, those communities kept their school districts. That’s how we ended up with a small, central school district surrounded by other small school districts instead of a big, city wide school district.
This is where Missouri v. Jenkins really starts to deviate from other desegregation cases that were fought in that era. When Judge Russell Clark took over the case, he ruled that KCMSD couldn’t sue the state because it was, in fact, an entity of the state.
But instead of dismissing the case, Clark did something really unusual. Unprecedented, even.
He made the school district a defendant in the suit it had brought.
Magnets and charters
Between 1984 and 1995, Judge Clark would order KCMSD to build magnet schools to attract white suburban students back to the district, a costly boondoggle that was inherently unfair to the black students integration was supposed to help. For the first few years, black students couldn’t even attend what the media dubbed “the Taj Mahal of schools” unless white students enrolled in sufficient number.
They never did. The magnet school experiment failed. In retrospect, it was probably the only solution available to Clark, who knew higher courts would strike down anything short of an aggressive plan to integrate city schools. But it was never going to work. Education policy wonks sometimes talk about the “tipping point” at which white parents are unwilling to send their kids to integrated schools. They usually put it around 50 percent.
But a study of demographic trends in the district between 1956 and 1974 suggests that the tipping point was actually much lower – only 30 percent black. In Kansas City Public Schools, white students haven’t made up the majority since 1969. Today, the district is 54.7 percent black and 28.6 percent Hispanic. Less than 10 percent of the 14,240 students enrolled in KCPS in 2017 were white.
The district has struggled to retain superintendents and accreditation. Previous administrations mismanaged money and assets. In 2007, voters overwhelmingly approved the transfer of seven schools outside city limits to the Independence School District. In 2010, the district closed more than 20 schools because it couldn’t justify keeping the buildings open as enrollment declined.
But there seems to be a consensus among education policy watchers in Kansas City that the district is stabilizing under Bedell’s leadership. The district is provisionally accredited, no longer at risk of state takeover. The real test is whether KCPS can grow enrollment after decades of decline.
Because it’s not just the suburban schools KCPS is competing with these days. Charter schools, the first of which opened in 1999, have further complicated Kansas City’s education landscape. There are excellent charter schools achieving impressive results for kids. There are also charters the state and authorizers have had to close for reasons ranging from poor test scores to financial impropriety.
While oversight has improved dramatically in the last 20 years, the rules for charters are still different than for traditional public schools. As the interactive map from Fordham shows, charter operators may be making intentional decisions about where to locate schools in Kansas City.
“If separation itself is a harm,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote way back in 1995 when the Supreme Court was considering Missouri v. Jenkins, “and if integration therefore is the only way that blacks can receive a proper education ... segregation injures blacks because blacks, when left on their own, cannot achieve. To my way of thinking, that conclusion is the result of a jurisprudence based upon a theory of black inferiority.”
One that’s still shaping Kansas City’s system of schools today.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.