Commentary

America’s Most Costly Educational Failure

By Paul Ciotti
This article appeared in Investors Business Daily.

The education establishment thinks the cure for what ails America’s public schools is more money. But spending a fortune is no guarantee of better schools. It certainly didn’t help a poorly performing school district in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri.

School reformers rejoiced when Federal District Judge Russell Clark took control of the district in ‘85. He ruled it was unconstitutionally segregated, with dilapidated facilities and students who performed poorly.

To bring the district into compliance. the judge ordered it and the state over the next 12 years to spend nearly $2 billion to build more schools, renovate old ones, integrate classrooms and bring student test scores up to national norms.

But when the judge finally took himself off the case last year, there was little to show academically for all that money. Although the district’s 37,000 mostly minority students enjoyed some of the best-funded school facilities in the country, student performance hadn’t improved.

It was a major embarrassment and an ideological setback for backers of vastly increased funding for public schools. From the start, proponents of Kansas City’s desegregation and education plan had touted it as a controlled experiment that would resolve once and for all two radically different philosophies of education.


For more than a decade, the Kansas City district got more money per pupil than any other of the 280 major school districts in the country. Yet in spite of having perhaps the finest facilities of any school district its size in the country, nothing changed. Test scores stayed put, the three-grade-level achievement gap between blacks and whites did not change, and the dropout rate went up, not down.


For decades, critics of excess spending for public schools had said, “You can’t solve educational problems by throwing money at them.” To which educators and public school advocates replied, “No one’s ever tried.”

Kansas City settles the argument. Judge Clark invited the district to “dream.” Forget about cost, he said. He urged administrators to let their imaginations soar and assemble a list of everything they might possibly need to boost the achievement of inner-city blacks. Using the extraordinary powers granted judges in desegregation cases, Clark said he would find a way to pay for it.

The judge may have been misinformed about the solutions. But no one can accuse him of being timid or indecisive. To pay for all the changes. improvements, programs and new schools, he unilaterally increased property taxes 150%, imposed a 1.5% income tax surcharge and, when that wasn’t enough, ordered the state of Missouri to make up for the shortfall.

Suddenly a poor district that had horrible credit and never paid its bills on time was getting hundreds of millions of dollars more every year.

For more than a decade, the Kansas City district got more money per pupil than any other of the 280 major school districts in the country. Yet in spite of having perhaps the finest facilities of any school district its size in the country, nothing changed. Test scores stayed put, the three-grade-level achievement gap between blacks and whites did not change, and the dropout rate went up, not down.

Why? One reason was that Judge Clark was unwilling to challenge the educational status quo in Kansas City. After many decades of slow decline, the distnct was burdened with many incompetent teachers. The quickest way to raise achievement would have been simply to fire the bad teachers and replace them with good ones.

But for many, the school district was as much a jobs program as an educational institution. Firing teachers was too traumatic. Instead, the district increased teacher pay 40% across the board, which guaranteed that poor teachers would stay farever.

Eventually, the ineffective or burned-out teachers ended up at the district’s office downtown. In time, the central administration grew so large — three to five times the size of the bureaucracy of comparable school districts — that it consumed over half the district’s entire education budget.

Of course, the district’s biggest problems weren’t just administrative. The ideological biases of local educators, politicians and Judge Clark against accountability made them reject solutions that might have worked — merit pay for teachers, penalties for failure or vouchers for private schools.

There’s a lesson in all this for lawmakers in Congress. It’s not that money never helps. Sure, money can help — especially where teachers and administrators have overcome their professional bias against competition and accountability. But unless that happens, even massive funding increases aren’t likely to help very much.

Paul Ciotti is the author of the “Money and School Performance: Lessons frorn the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment.”