Last Wednesday the Kansas City Board of Education in Missouri voted to close 28 of the district’s 61 schools and lay off 700 of its 3000 employees. The district says the closings are expected to save $50 million, erasing the deficit from the $300 million budget. In a 5 – 4 vote, the board members endorsed the Right-Size plan, proposed by schools superintendent John Covington.
“We must make sacrifices,” said board member Joel Pelofsky, who voted for the plan. “Unite in favor of our children.”
What’s going on here? Is this yet another punishment meted out to schools that don’t match up to federal expectations? It turns out that this situation is a little unusual. Enrollment in the school district has declined by half in the last 10 years alone, and the schools are only 48 percent full. As Covington explained, “Keeping all of the schools open with too few children in them is draining the resources we need to improve the education of all students.”
This situation has evolved because children don’t live in the same numbers and the same places as they did when the schools were first built, decades ago. With “white flight,” families have moved to the suburbs and beyond, leading several superintendents to try, unsuccesfully, to pare back the number of schools, but until now the residents and the school board have been able to resist. John Covington arrived in July, saw immediately that the district was both underperforming and also going into debt and decided that things had to change.
This is clearly tragic for many students, who will be forced to relocate to other schools, as some have already done a few times in the past. As Covington said on Thursday, “No one likes closing schools. It’s hard. It’s tough on families, and it’s certainly tough on our community.” But realistically, what other options could the superintendent have come up with?
Kansas City is not alone. School districts across the country, hit hard by budget cuts, have been struggling for several years to make ends meet. They have had to make some tough choices between layoffs, closures, program cuts and school bus cancellations. School districts in at least 17 states have opted for four-day weeks.
Once the anger has died down, it will be important to follow the next steps.
Right now, less than a third of elementary students in the city schools read at or above grade level. And in most of the schools, fewer than a fourth of students are proficient at their grade levels. If these closings improve achievement by allowing the system to focus its resources, that will be a good thing.
However, Covington’s plans for the future sound alarmingly like what’s coming out of the U.S. education department right now: basing the notion of achievement on standardized tests scores alone, and developing a pay-for-performance plan to teachers. As I’ve written before on this page, the No Child Left Behind model does not serve our students well. Mr. Covington, please think carefully before implementing your plans – the future of Kansas City students is at stake. Maybe you could try asking some of your teachers for their suggestions?