School Reform that Money Can’t Buy

After spending billions, Kansas City's schools are as dysfunctional as ever. Urban education needs reforms that encompass accountability and performance.
by | September 27, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

When Kansas City's public schools were stripped of state accreditation last week for the second time in just over a decade, it was the latest installment in a more-than-25-year train wreck that reads like a case study in how money alone won't fix what ails urban education.

In 1985, federal district Judge Russell Clark found that the school district was unconstitutionally segregated. Over the next 12 years, he ordered the state of Missouri and the district to spend more than $2 billion—more than eight times Kansas City's 1985 school spending—to fix the problem.

From 1985 until Judge Clark recused himself from the case in 1997, Kansas City spent more per-pupil on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis and had the lowest student-teacher ratio of any of the nation's 280 largest school districts.

The district built 15 new schools and renovated 54 others. One had an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room. Others featured a planetarium, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary and a model United Nations with simultaneous-translation capability.

Despite all this, by the time that lavish spending on school facilities ended in 1999, the percentage of African-American students in the city's schools had risen from 73 percent in 1985 to 80 percent, student performance was no better and the achievement gap between white and minority students hadn't narrowed.

One reason was a bloated administration. The 14,000-student local Catholic school district was run by a superintendent, two assistant superintendents and a part-time marketing manager. Compare that to 600 employees for the 36,000 Kansas City public-school students, between two and three times more than in similarly sized districts. More than half the district's budget was spent outside the classroom.

A dysfunctional school board resulted in the district having 10 superintendents in nine years, many of whom had their contracts bought out. At one point, five superintendents were on the payroll.

And while the district was quick to spend on amenities, it lacked the political will to do the things that improve student performance. Little attention was paid to hiring good teachers, and it was almost impossible to fire bad ones.

When attempts to implement merit pay were blocked, all teachers (and cafeteria workers and custodians) got 40 percent raises. Even if merit pay had been approved, there was no evaluation system in place.

No core curriculum was ever developed, and, other than magnet schools, parents had little choice. There were no charter schools, and when 50 private schools offered to educate 4,000 Kansas City students for half of what it cost the district, city school officials turned them down.

While Kansas City demonstrates the futility of trying to combat public education's problems with money alone, that doesn't mean money isn't part of the solution.

Massachusetts public schools were nothing special in 1993, when a landmark state education-reform law offered generous state funding in return for high standards and accountability. The Bay State put in place rigorous academic standards, high-stakes testing for students and teachers, accountability for school districts, and a carefully monitored system of charter schools.

Today, Massachusetts students are the nation's top performers. Many Americans wring their hands about falling behind the international competition, but Bay State students tied for tops in the world in eighth-grade science.

And Massachusetts' success hasn't been limited to the suburbs. Between 2002 and 2009, African-American and Hispanic students improved more rapidly than white students on fourth- and eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests.

If you want better education, you'd better be prepared to pay for it. But as Kansas City attempts to dig its way out of a hole created over more than a quarter-century, leaders there would do well to learn from their own mistakes and Massachusetts' success by targeting funds toward reforms that have been shown to improve student performance.