LAWRENCE — In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended legal school segregation. Six decades later, many cities and school districts have found new ways to keep poor and minority students out of the most successful schools, hoard resources and maintain economic advantages. The Kansas City metropolitan area is a stark illustration of that process, a University of Kansas professor points out in a new report, showing how districts have evolved to keep education inequitable.
John Rury, professor of educational leadership & policy studies and history by courtesy at KU, has written “Educational Inequality in Greater Kansas City Remains an Enduring Problem,” part of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City’s new report on the state of the city’s schools. His contribution offers a geographical and socioeconomic illustration of how educational segregation has endured. KU researchers Cokethea Hill, project coordinator with the Life Span Institute, and Amy McCart, co-director of KU’s SWiFT Center, also contributed chapters to the Urban League annual report.
“This is a national problem, and the report shows this is what it’s like specifically in Kansas City,” Rury said. “Aggregating composite ACT scores for districts in metro Kansas City and comparing them with poverty levels is quite revealing. The higher the poverty, the lower the scores and vice versa. At negative .95, it’s almost a perfectly linear association.”
Using census data and publicly available testing data, Rury shows that suburban districts have consistently higher composite ACT scores, while urban districts and those with lower average income reliably have lower scores. The most significant predictor of student success, however, is the proportion of parents with college degrees. Not surprisingly, those areas tend to be the same as the highest income school districts. Johnson County has metropolian Kansas City's greatest concentration of college-educated adults and the highest composite test scores.
Part of the report “Urban Education: Still Separate and Unequal,” Rury’s chapter traces the historical evolution of Kansas City schools. After the Supreme Court discontinued school segregation, Kansas City schools began a period of decline for urban schools while white flight took hold and affluent families moved to suburbs. While hardly unique in that process, the chapter illustrates the unique methods metro area schools used to maintain segregation. One striking example highlighted is when Missouri's Kansas City Public Schools lost accreditation, in 2011 courts said students in the district could attend other schools. Suburban districts fought that ruling, going as far as suing the state to prevent it.
“People in suburbs surrounding the city have refused to take a look at the entire area and take the view they’re only responsible for themselves,” Rury said. “That’s how the system has evolved and how it is maintained.”
The lack of consideration of an entire metro area’s school system is one factor holding back educational research, Rury said. People often focus on urban schools with the most challenges and consider suburban districts boring due to their lack of problems. However, they are all part of the same, larger system and should be considered when looking for solutions to inequality. The study is among the first to study an entire metro area’s educational achievement and socioeconomic status instead of focusing on particular schools or districts, and it can provide a blueprint for how other cities can study school performance and the social and economic factors that shape it.
Kansas City faces several unique conditions not common to other metro areas, including having schools in two states. However, the area’s evolution is similar to what has happened in many other metropolitan regions.
“If we look at the history of American education, this is the most dramatic change in the last century,” Rury said of continued segregation. “There’s still sharply defined inequality, reflecting the historical decline of inner-city schools and rise of the suburbs.”
Arguments are often made that city centers are making comebacks economically or that when districts are forced to integrate, inclusion of disadvantaged students drag down achievement of others. Rury cites evidence to show that, while urban economic revitalization is real, young, highly educated people who move into those areas still revert to suburbs when they marry and have children. Previous research has also shown that school achievement does not decline when students from disadvantaged districts join advantaged schools in an integrated fashion.
Contrary to what many believe, the report also shows that school segregation is not a problem unique to the South. In fact, court-mandated integration was quite successful in Southern states, at least for a while, while countless northern districts found new ways to keep schools separate, Rury said.
The chapter is a revision of the epilogue in Rury’s upcoming book, “Creating the Suburban School Advantage: Race, Localism and Inequality in an American Metropolis” (Cornell University Press, March 2020). The book takes a larger look at Kansas City schools and the mechanisms used by districts in the postwar period, extending to today, to maintain school segregation. The evidence showing the enduring inequality and lack of action by leaders suggests the problem likely will not be solved without another civil rights movement and perhaps expanding upon Brown v. Board.
“The saga of desegregation is far from over. In many respects, we’re moving backwards. You really can’t understand the problems of city schools without looking at the entire context of suburban schools as well, and that’s what I attempt to demonstrate,” Rury said.
Photo credit: Urban League of Greater Kansas City