I’ve long had a significant and only-slightly-rational obsession with Kansas City, Missouri. I’ve only spent two days there, and to be honest I didn’t have very much fun. But something about it reminds me of my hometown, Baltimore, with an added dash of Americana due to its being in the center of the heartland. And then there’s the huge role it played in the development of swing music.
But right now, the school board in Kansas City is taking a course of action that, quite frankly, makes me feel very uneasy. In an effort to avoid bankruptcy in the face of a projected $50 million shortfall, the Kansas City school board is making sweeping cuts, including firing about 700 of its 3,000 employees, selling its central office building, and closing almost half its schools. (For more information on these cuts, go here and here.) It’s this last component, the school closings, that’s a bit unnerving.
Considered abstractly, there’s nothing wrong with closing a school. Schools can be closed because enrollment has dropped so low that the location is no longer sustainable, and they can be closed because they consistently fail to increase student achievement. In New Orleans, we’ve witnessed measures taken to address these issues, including chartering and shuttering schools. Cities like Baltimore and Washington, DC (and, soon enough, New Orleans) are debating the appropriate timetable for revoking and potentially closing charter schools that fail to improve. And many districts have closed schools to brace themselves against budget shortfalls.
But Kansas City will be closing 29 of its 61 schools, nearly half. As Andy Smarick of the Fordham Institute wrote in a March 8 blog post:
The problem is that the primary motivation is money–the system has an enormous deficit–not student achievement. So we need to wonder if the schools chosen for closure are the lowest performing or the most expensive? Will the closures be done methodically with a constant eye on improving achievement or swiftly to reduce costs post haste?
As Smarick puts it, there is nothing wrong with closing persistently failing schools and replacing them with proven high-quality programs. But given that one school board member (one of four to vote against the school closure program) is quoted as saying that the board received no student achievement data regarding the schools to be closed, I think it’s safe for Smarick and others to argue that these closures are planned solely according to fiscal considerations. Who loses out in this scenario? It’s the students in higher-performing but expensive schools and programs who are going to be consolidated in other schools. A substantial fear exists among some politicians and education stakeholders in Kansas City that these closures will disproportionately hurt poor students of color.
But why should we in New Orleans care about what’s going on in Kansas City? On a basic level, if we care about educational equity broadly understood, these events might give us pause. But beyond that, I think Kansas City should serve as a warning to New Orleans education reformers, policymakers, and researchers, reminding us of the importance of quality and equity as we move forward with reforms. If budget shortfalls here lead to school closures or program cuts, we should do the opposite of Kansas City and make sure that any cuts are made without sacrificing the access of historically marginalized (read: poor and minority) populations to high quality public education.