An Inclusive Litany

6/9/00

Reacting to a failure to meet any of eleven performance standards, the Missouri State Board of Education has pulled the accreditation from the entire Kansas City School District. The district now has two years to meet accreditation requirements, or the state will assume direct control. Students may now legally attend schools in neighboring districts, and the Kansas City district must pay their tuition and transportation costs. The Kansas City Star reports that even the Kansas City school board president is now considering removing his own kids from district schools.

This may end the longest-running and most ambitious experiment in American public education, and puts into question the relationship between the quality of a school and its level of funding. Following a late-1970s desegregation suit, federal judge Russell Clark took the extraordinary step of taking the district under his direct control in 1985. Rather than instituting the sort of unpopular busing regimen that led to massive problems in cities like Boston, he ordered the district and state to raise taxes to fund a series of magnet schools that would be so well staffed and funded that they would attract large numbers of non-minority students.

The state poured $2 billion into building new educational infrastructure, including schools with lavish computer facilities, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation facilities, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a robotics lab. The district offered taxi service to make transportation easier for suburban kids who didn't live near a bus route. The district regularly spent more per pupil than any other urban district in America, and also had the lowest student-teacher ratio, under 13 to 1.

Still, suburban students stayed away. More importantly, test scores remained well below the national average. Only 5 percent of targeted black eleventh-graders scored at a "proficient" level in reading and writing. Nearly half either didn't finish the test or failed to show up at all.

In an effort to address this poor performance, a 1994 state law raised taxes dramatically, stiffened requirements for teachers and curriculum, and included a program to objectively evaluate school performance. This led some rural school districts to lose state accreditation, either because they weren't spending enough or because their teachers lacked the proper requirements. Still, the state Department of Education was much less likely to penalize schools for poor student performance.

Since the loss of accreditation occurred, some observers noticed impressive changes, in which school administrators—faced with competition from charter schools, private schools, and neighboring districts—focused more on increasing outputs than inputs. But the Eighth District Appeals Court later overturned the state's accreditation ruling and ordered a reinstatement of federal control.

Blake Hurst, former president of Westboro School District in the northwest part of the state, reports that once that happened, "the actors in this never-ending drama began to return to type. The teacher's union is complaining about a merit pay plan. The opponents of charter schools are arguing for a five-year delay in the opening of any new ones."

The appeals court decision is now itself under appeal.

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