Elementary classroom
Michael Q. McShane

What if I told you that you could have access to nearly unlimited resources, the counsel of top experts, and a direct path to implementing your plans. Could you create a top-notch urban school district?

This is, for all intents and purposes, the deal that Judge Russell Clark offered to those who wanted to reform the Kansas City, Missouri, School District starting in the mid-1980s. He implemented policy recommendations by fiat. He raised the property taxes of the residents of the school district without allowing them to vote on it. He required the state to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to fund new programming. What the plaintiffs in Missouri v. Jenkins, wanted, they got.

Well, except for one thing: a school district that met the needs of their children.

As Joshua Dunn points out in Complex Justice, an engrossing history of the court case, Judge Clark was hemmed in. Kansas City’s geographic peculiarities have it spread across two states, and families of means have always been able to move to the green, suburban pastures of Johnson County, Kansas. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down the Milliken decision, which forbade judges from requiring actions from suburban districts to alleviate segregation, essentially boxing in the district and those hoping to reform it.

So Judge Clark started cutting checks. Experts were called in, surveys were administered, and program after program popped up. Slavic studies? Can do. A model UN with simultaneous translation? Sounds great. An Olympic-quality swimming and diving facility? Whatever you think will make the school district work.

Kansas City in the early 1990s was the apogee of what Rick Hess and I describe in our new volume, Educational Entrepreneurship Today, as the “system” approach to school reform. It is marked by careful planning, alignment, and coordination, all driven by the wisdom of experts and implemented by clear-eyed technocrats—or at least that’s how it is supposed to work. Kansas City shows, even with a boatload of money and a judge who can implement programs with the stroke of a pen, just how hard it is to pull that off.

What were the results? When Judge Dean Whipple eventually dismissed the case, 20 years after it began and after Clark himself had retired, he summed it up well, writing, “Despite the expenditure of vast sums, the prolonged oversight of a federal court and its appointees, the efforts of multiple parties, and the passage of forty years since the end of official de jure segregation in Kansas City, Missouri, the KCMSD still struggles to provide an adequate education to its pupils.”

I grew up in Kansas City during this time, so it’s no surprise that I have a different view of how to improve the education system. Rather than looking for the grand solution or trying to impose “best practices” on every school and classroom, I favor a more decentralized approach marked by experimentation, trial and error, and smaller entrepreneurial organizations working to solve the problems that are right in front of them.

Fortunately for residents of Crown Town (sorry—we’re still basking in the glow of last year’s World Series win and will be for some time now), this more decentralized approach has been adopted to a large degree, and some seeds for future success have been planted. As the court case wound down, Kansas City opened its doors to charter schools.

Today, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Kansas City Missouri, School District has the 5th-highest percentage of its students in charter schools, at 41%. And it appears that the market share will only grow in the future.

It has not been all roses. Several charter schools have failed, and some have failed spectacularly. However, a loosely aligned network of schools is gradually emerging in Kansas City and meeting with success. Recently, the public policy research firm Mathematica released an evaluation of the Ewing Marion Kaufmann School that showed incredible gains from its students. French language immersion school Academie Lafayette has a waiting list over a hundred students long. The Crossroads Academy, a popular urban charter school that was bursting at the seams, is opening new campuses, and the Citizens of the World network is coming to Kansas City after a group of enterprising parents issued their own RFP to charter organizations to attract a school operator.

Is change happening fast enough? Of course not. Will all of these schools meet with success? Maybe not. But given the backdrop they are working against, they are beating the odds. What’s more, if one school fails, the damage can be contained. If a whole district falls into disarray, it can take a city down with it.

The lesson from Kansas City for the rest of the nation is one of humility. We often don’t know what we don’t know, and are overconfident that our one great idea is the silver bullet can turn things around if embraced by every teacher or every school. We think that we can impose our views and shape the behaviors of people by administrative diktat, even when the people we’re working with deeply disagree with us about the proper course of action. The world doesn’t work that way, and we must keep that in mind as we chart a path forward.

About the Author

Michael McShane
Senior Fellow of Education Policy

Mike McShane is Senior Fellow of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute. He is a former high school teacher and earned his PhD in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Show-Me Institute, Mike worked at the American Enterprise Institute as a research fellow.