Up to Date in Kansas City

We welcome a guest post today from Joshua M. Dunn, author of Complex Justice: The Case of Missouri v. Jenkins. Dunn’s book explores the 1987 case that became the federal court’s most expensive attempt at school desegregation: Judge Russell Clark mandated tax increases to help pay for improvements to the Kansas City, Missouri, School District in an effort to lure white students and quality teachers back to the inner-city district. Upon the recent news that the same school district is now planning to close nearly half its schools at the end of this school year, we turned to Dunn for insight into the situation.–ellen

Two weeks ago the media reported the apparently shocking news that the Kansas City, Missouri School District (KCMSD) school board voted 5-4 to close nearly half of its schools, 28 of 61 schools in the district. But those familiar with the district were not surprised.  The real question is not why the school board has decided to close so many schools but why it took them so long.  In Complex Justice I describe the long, agonizing, and costly desegregation case of Missouri v. Jenkins. It is that case which delayed this day of reckoning.

Unfortunately most coverage of the current situation has neglected to mention the role Missouri v. Jenkins played in leading to these mass closures.  The New York Times, for example, addressed the district’s long history of dysfunction but did not explain how the case aided and abetted that dysfunction.

In the mid 1980s, federal district court judge Russell Clark ordered a complete overhaul of the school district.   No expense was spared.  All told, the court spent more than $2 billion in its quest to improve the KCMSD.  Every high school and middle school and half the district’s elementary schools became magnet schools with special themes such as classical Greek, Slavic studies, and agribusiness.  Special themes required special facilities, such as petting zoos, robotics labs, and a model United Nations facility with simultaneous translation capability.  One high school was so extravagant it was dubbed the “Taj Mahal.”

When Judge Clark’s remedial program began in the mid 1980s the school district enrolled 35,000 students, compared to more than 70,000 in the late 1960s. (Today it enrolls just over 17,000.)  During the 1970s the school district had experienced a massive exodus of students.  Most importantly, a series of destructive and divisive teacher strikes undermined parental confidence in the school system.  Thousands of students left the district after each strike.  Of course, most of them were white, but a significant number of African American students left as well.  Everyone who could afford to escape fled to the suburbs or to private schools. However, because of ineffectual leadership, the district maintained a large stable of partially filled buildings.  No one was willing to make the politically unpopular but necessary decisions to close underused schools.  Once the case got underway, the plaintiff’s attorney, Arthur Benson, and his expert witnesses assured Judge Clark that if he ordered the requested improvements, the school district would draw tens of thousands of white students from the suburbs back into the district. Much like the Field of Dreams, the premise was “If you build it they will come.”

But the students never came.  Sadly, at the same time that Judge Clark was pouring money into the district, the quality of education declined for Kansas City’s minority students. Test scores fell and levels of racial isolation increased.  African American parents grew so disillusioned that many formed an organization devoted to taking over the school district and ending the case.  Despite the academic failure of students in the system the school district was kept afloat by judicially mandated largesse, allowing it to avoid the difficult decision to close largely empty schools.  In fact, the schools closed last week received tens of millions of dollars under the desegregation plan.  Absent Missouri v. Jenkins, the school district would have been forced to gradually close schools and would have avoided a wrenching and traumatic mass closing.

Ironically, the board member casting the decisive vote to close the 28 schools was Arthur Benson, the same attorney who led the Missouri v. Jenkins lawsuit from 1977 to its conclusion in 2003. While many, including myself, have criticized his counterproductive educational proposals, he has tried to put his hard-won knowledge to good use by joining the school board two years ago.  Instead of focusing on exotic but educationally distracting programs, he has spent his tenure on the board trying to focus on providing a good and fiscally sustainable education for the district’s students. One wishes Benson well in his effort to help the children of Kansas City in the twilight of his career. But it’s difficult not to think of what could have been if he had he used his formidable gifts and intellect to help the school district in more productive ways than litigation over the past three decades.  In the many years I studied the case, I never found a single person, even among his most ardent opponents, who questioned Benson’s integrity or sincerity.  He always had the best of intentions.  But good intentions do not guarantee good public policy. Certain roads, as Missouri v. Jenkins reminds us, are paved with them.

–Joshua M. Dunn
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
author of Complex Justice: The Case of Missouri v. Jenkins