KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- John Covington hesitated before becoming this city's 26th school superintendent in 40 years. A blunt-talking African-American from Alabama, he attended the Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles, which prepares leaders for urban school districts, and when he asked people there if he should come here, their response, he says, was: "Not 'no,' but 'Hell no!'" He says they suggested that when flying across the country he should take a flight that does not pass through this city's airspace.
How did this pleasant place become so problematic? Remember the destination of the road paved with good intentions.
This city is just 65 miles down the road from Topeka, Kan., from whence came Brown v. Board of Education, the fuse that lit many ongoing struggles over schools and race. Kansas City has had its share of those struggles, one of which occurred last year when Covington took office with a big bang: He closed 26 of the district's 61 schools. Kansas City had fewer students but twice as many schools as Pueblo, Colo., where Covington had been superintendent.
Thirty-five years ago Kansas City's district had 54,000 students. Today it has less than 17,000. Between then and now there was a spectacular confirmation of the axiom that education cannot be improved by simply throwing money at it.
In the 1980s, after a court held that the city was operating a segregated school system, judicial Caesarism appeared. A judge vowed to improve the district's racial balance by luring white students to lavish "magnet schools" offering "suburban comparability" and "desegregative attractiveness." And he ordered tax increases to pay the almost $2 billion bill for, among other things, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a planetarium, vivariums, greenhouses, a model United Nations wired for language translation, radio and television studios, an animation and editing lab, movie editing and screening rooms, a temperature-controlled art gallery, a 25-acre farm, a 25-acre wildlife area, instruction in cosmetology and robotics, field trips to Mexico and Senegal, and more.
Neither test scores nor the racial gap in academic achievement improved, and racial imbalance increased. Today, African-Americans are 28 percent of the city's population and 63 percent of public school students. And Covington ("We're not an employment agency. We are a school district") has survived the tumultuous process of closing schools. He won the support of a narrow majority on the elected school board. Except for one incumbent board member who ran unopposed, all those candidates in the next election who had opposed the closures were defeated. Now what?
He wants more money, but in Missouri 70 percent to 75 percent of dollars for schools are local dollars, and the last increases of Kansas City property taxes were the ones the judge ordered two decades ago. There has been no ballot measure to raise taxes since 1969.
To find what he calls "highly effective" teachers, Covington is seeking help from Teach for America. This year he has 39 of its teachers. For next year, he wants 150 more, which would make them more than 13 percent of his teachers -- one of the highest percentages of any district in the nation. To achieve this, he has $3.2 million from such local philanthropies as the Hall Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation.
He wants to abandon "the industrial model" of education, which is anachronistic for children "who come from the womb with a laptop in one hand and a cell phone in the other." He says if someone who attended Kansas City's schools in the 1950s were put in a classroom today, the only striking difference would be the ethnic composition of the class.
Covington wants to blur, even erase, the distinctions between grades K through 12, teaching individual children at whatever level they are learning.
He wishes the school day and year were longer, but this would require money, the scarcity of which shapes collective bargaining with the teachers union: "We give them language instead of money." By language he means work rules. He says the resulting rules mean, for example, that some teachers will not stay five minutes after school for a meeting. "Overall," he says delicately, "the relationship with teachers is somewhat volatile."
So, he is asked, is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sensible in wanting to confine teachers' collective bargaining to questions of salaries? Covington: "It makes sense to me."
George Will's email address is georgewill(at)washpost.com.
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