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Mar. 13 2010 - 3:18 am | 881 views | 3 recommendations | 10 comments

Kansas City’s cutbacks are a warning to the entire country

“This is the most painful vote I ever cast.” These nine words, reported in Thursday’s Kansas City Star, came from Kansas City (Missouri) School Board member Duane Kelly as he supported a proposal to close 28 of the city’s 61 public schools at the end of the school year. The district needed to cut $50 million or face a state takeover, and its school buildings were at half capacity due to a steady stream of students leaving to attend charter, private, or suburban schools. (If you’re curious to know how things got so bad, a well-written op-ed from Barb Shelly of the Star, entitled, “The fall of the Kansas City School District (and what it should do now),” is available here.)

But this story is significant for much more than its impact on students and teachers  in our nation’s 35th largest city. The significance lies in the title of a story about this situation from the New York Times: ”Board’s Decision to Close 28 Kansas City Schools Follows Years of Inaction.” Susan Saulny, the story’s author, explains:

The sudden move suggests a depth of dysfunction here that is rarely associated with Kansas City, a lively heartland town with a reputation for order. But a closer look at the school board’s recent history reveals a chaotic, almost nonfunctioning body that put off making tough choices and even routine improvements for generations. Experts said that in the board’s years of inaction is a cautionary tale for school districts everywhere. ‘This is extraordinary,’ said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington. ‘The school board was dysfunctional for years. There was very poor governance for a long period of time, and it was like a revolving door with superintendents.’”

It’s clear, at least to me, that Kansas City will be better off in the long run for having made this move. The district’s schools will be at full capacity, which means taxpayer dollars won’t be wasted on extra buildings, and resources can be better targeted to teachers and students. However, it also is true that citizens have suffered and will continue to suffer a great disruption. In the short-term, parents will need to adapt to new transportation schedules and children will need to adapt to new school buildings, teachers, and peers. Beyond those immediate inconveniences, dozens of buildings will be vacant across the city; in some neighborhoods the loss of a school will mean the loss of a community center and safe space for children, and perhaps even diminished community services like police patrols and street repairs. And layoffs accompanying the school closings may result in those former teachers leaving the city for greener pastures, thus decreasing the city’s revenue base.

Why does this matter? In my mind, the failure of citizens, the city council, school board members, and school system leaders to make difficult decisions over the years led to a drastic decision being the only option. And this seems to be the pattern of behavior and decision-making (or lackthereof) that we have on a national level when it comes to things like immigration, energy, health care, social security, medicare, etc. We put off making difficult decisions until we face a crisis, and then we whine about the drastic decisions that must be made because of our previous failure to act. After the vote, one of the parents interviewed in the NYT story opined, “This is too much, too fast.” She may be right. But it was the only option after decades of doing too little, too slowly.

(I deliberately used ”we” in the preceding paragraph, because a school system, like our government, is directly accountable to the people. We choose those who lead it and if we aren’t happy with their performance we can replace them. And if we think our ideas are better than theirs, we can run for office ourselves. It’s easy to blame the school board (or the government) for mistakes or inaction, but its members were elected by citizens of Kansas City. Unfortunately, anyone who has studied school districts knows that most citizens are extremely apathetic when it comes to voting for school board members–despite the fact that education expenditures often are the single largest portion of a community’s budget. So at least some of the blame goes to citizens who did not vote, did not run for office, or did not pay attention to what the school board was and was not doing.)


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s simple economics less kids means the need for less schools…..let’s not forget, there was a time when there were no schools in Kansas, not that long ago

  2. collapse expand

    “In my mind, the failure of citizens, the city council, school board members, and school system leaders to make difficult decisions over the years led to a drastic decision being the only option.”

    I appreciate your analysis, Michael, but as a longtime KC resident until last year, there are a couple of bits here that are missing. It is certainly the citizens’ fault, but probably the main aggravating factor was migration of the middle class either out of the school district or into private schools. One need look just a county over to find the Blue Valley School District, one of the finest in the country.

    Secondly, the city council has no impact on the school itself.

    Finally, difficult decisions were not the problem. Cronyism was. The key factor was disingenuous superintendents who arrived with big talk and left with big severance packages. In the vacuum career bureaucrats took care of their friends. That history alone would blow your mind.

    Kansas City School District has become so unhealthy that those few good citizens who do try to change the system are up against too big of a problem to make any progress. And a loop has been created … more people leave the city because of the school district, the school district becomes less and less accountable.

    It’s a sad story, and I’m you’re right, not unique to Kansas City.

  3. collapse expand

    “In my mind, the failure of citizens, the city council, school board members, and school system leaders to make difficult decisions over the years led to a drastic decision being the only option. And this seems to be the pattern of behavior and decision-making (or lackthereof) that we have on a national level [...]”

    Yup. Just think about all the recent extreme measures we’ve had to take on the economic front. Like Aesop said in “The Ass and the Mule,” an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. (Although we have no shortage of people who will invent problems so they can sell that ounce of prevention.)

  4. collapse expand

    People are voting with their feet.

    Cities are hamstrung by too much corruption, too little oversight, and not enough people who care. Middle class families are moving to the suburbs and even the exurbs because they’re tired of paying for government that taxes them with very little to show for it.

    If properly managed, cities could be family friendly places. However, the infrastructure, including utilities, roads, transportation, schools and so on are decrepit.

    Cities used to have middle class resources. There are none any more. They used to have factories. They pushed them out. Cities have zoned themselves so that there are either offices, stores, or housing. Mechanics, plumbers, electricians, welders, and so on are actively discouraged from having businesses in a city.

    And now we’re discovering that middle class families are no longer living in the cities, so they have to close schools. It was a long time coming.

    We need to rethink what we want our cities to be, because clearly what they are now isn’t working.

  5. collapse expand

    I don’t know enough about the KC dysfunction to comment one way or the other, but I will tell you that as a nation, we have allowed taxation to become a dirty word which has starved the public schools. In California, where I live, our per student funding now ranks us near the bottom of the country and our property taxes have been held at 1978 levels. Instead, funding is reliant on revenue that is economically cyclical, e.g. sales and income taxes. So, as you might imagine, the current recession has wreaked havoc on our school districts who have no predictable source of revenue because state coffers have plunged to the deepest depths. Just yesterday, I got an email from our school board telling us that pink slips are going out to a significant number of teachers because state law requires that teachers be notified before March 15 so they can attempt to find work in another district before the next academic year. Problem is, we don’t know if, in fact, they will actually have to be laid off until the state sets its budget in July. Screwy.

    The point of all this is that I wouldn’t necessarily be so quick to point fingers at the school board. The funding rules for school districts can be so byzantine as to render even the smartest and most dedicated individuals impotent.

    • collapse expand

      I don’t think most would have any problem paying taxes –as long as there were substantive services or infrastructure that everyone could acknowledge and understand. The reason for the anti-tax backlash is because people do not understand what the expenses are, where the money is going, or what they have to show for it.

      Another point I want to make is that I don’t think this is strictly a matter of how much per pupil we’re spending. Washington DC is near the very top of spending per pupil, and they are near the bottom of student performance. Clearly there are other factors involved here.

      We expect our city governments to do too much. Public schools aren’t just schools any more; they’re holding pens for children until they reach adulthood. The threat of suspension, let alone expulsion, is too minuscule for most children to take seriously. Children have understood this situation intuitively for decades. Private schools have one major advantage, however: They can expel disruptive students much more readily than a public school can.

      We need as a cities, as states, and as a country to rethink our educational bureaucracy, its goals, and what we’re willing to pay for.

      And while we’re at it, our cities themselves have become havens for legions of childless professionals. If we expect cities to grow and prosper, we should think about what it will take to bring middle class families back in. And one of the first place to start is in the schools.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        You’re right that per pupil spending by itself is not the sole indicator of performance, but I can tell you that there is a minimum investment that needs to be made in order to provide a quality curriculum that includes a well-rounded education and to keep class sizes to a reasonable level. In the cases where spending is high and performance is low, my read is that a lack of parental involvement and low expectations keep those kids from achieving.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    You make some excellent points about the school system. I would also like to add the lack of comprehensive healthcare reform will continue this cycle. The Emergency rooms are going to overwhelmed with people without coverage and property taxes will go up to fund these ER’s, chasing more middle class property owners out of the area, making the problem worse. We seem to be in a “death spiral” where the lack of restraint on spending wisely in the past will demand drastic cuts or major changes going forward in all “basics” like education and healthcare.

  7. collapse expand

    Just one clarification about my post…the point was not that this situation could have been completely averted, but that there may have been a better ways to get to the same place. For example, if the school board had decided to close three schools per year over the past decade–leaving it with the same number of schools it will have in the fall–it could have rented out those buildings to charter schools, thus bringing in needed revenue. At this point, all the charter schools have homes, so it is doubtful that the city will see any revenue generated from those buildings. They simply will become eyesores in their neighborhoods.

    Making difficult choices gradually over the past decade also would have allowed the city and district to be more deliberate in their planning; feeder patterns, neighborhood needs, and other factors could have been taken into account to a greater extent than they were with this week’s drastic decision.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with a small school district that competes for students with charter schools and private schools. In fact, a school district that serves fewer students is in many places the new reality. What city governments, school boards, and citizens need to think about is how they would like the process of retrenchment to proceed–gradually and methodically, or quickly and chaotically.

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.