Public School Desegregation and the White Flight:

A Case Study of the Kansas City, Missouri School District

By: Ben Ross

            In 1922, 15 acres of farmland near the intersection of Worall and present-day 67th street was purchased as the site of the newest addition to the Kansas City, Missouri School district.  Southwest High School as it came to called was completed in 1925, five weeks after the innaugural class of 951 boys and girls first walked through its doors.  A modest educational facility for its time, Southwest soon received national acclimation as one of the top high schools in the nation.  By its tenth aniversary, enrollment had nearly doubled to 1,840 as Southwest continued the path of academic excellence.  The school’s publication the Sachem wom first place in a National Scholastic Press Association contest.  The school established the city’s first Aeronautical Club and Science Club which held an annual science fair, also the first in the city.  A vibrant athletic program boasted a football team that took second place in the Interscholastic League, and the interscholastic League golf champion Ray Watson, father of future pro and local celebrity, Tom Watson.  20 of the school’s original 34 teachers remained at the school, and the graduating class of 1935 included the future commander of the first nuclear aircraft carrier and another student who would become the presidig judge of the Jackson County Court, a position once held by Harry Truman.

In 1965 Southwest’s enrollment was 2,489, and results from the School and College Aptitude Test included a perfect score, as well as 8 99%’s.  The senior class included a National Merit scholar and eight finalists, an all-state basketball player, and the city record holder in the 50 yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly swimming events  (Matheny 63).  Southwest would later become the educational springboard for national merit scholars, a handful of famous actors, and even a Nobel Prize recipient  (Matheny 1-20).

            On August, 7 1997 the Kansas City School Board voted to close the doors to Southwest High School at the end of the 1997-1998 school year.  Enrollment had fallen to 465, stadardized test scores were far below the national average, attendance for the year was 64 percent and in a district that was nearly 20% white, Southwest had only a 5% white student body  (Matheny 168).

            What caused the demise of Southwest High School?  How did a school that was once a national standard of excellence fall to the point where it’s closure became eminent.  Why did a prodominantly white middle-class school transform into a nearly all-black institution ridden by the problems of inner-city youths.  Was there a connection between the “white flight” in Kansas City and the deteriorating education system left in its wake. 

The transformation of Southwest High School through the last quarter of the Twentieth Century follows a unique pattern, which typifies the Kansas City School Missouri School District’s failure to provide a quality education for the city’s minority youths that date back to the time of government-sanctioned segregated schooling.    

            The State of Missouri Constitution of 1875 stated that “Separate (public) schools shall be provided for white and colored children, except in cases otherwise provided for by law  (Matheny forward).  In 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson case, school segregation was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, provided that the schools for black and white children were “separate but equal.”  The outcome of the decision was that schools were indeed separate, but the standards were far from equal.  The state of Missouri typified this institution.  In 1948 the state of Missouri had over 6,000 school districts, many of which contained only a single school with an average of thirty students and no high school.  Because the state required separate schools for blacks and whites, most districts could not accommodate for the two or three black students in the area who showed up for class.  Only in the urban centers of Kansas City and St. Louis were there sizable enough black populations to sustain black high schools.  As late as the 1930’s the state did not require that blacks receive tuition or transportation to schools which they could attend.  Thus black children in Missouri often had no access to schools whatsoever  (Benson).

            In Kansas City blacks were subjugated to over-crowded schools with few resources and often under-qualified faculties.  A former district employee described a black elementary school as a building looking more like a chicken coop, with outdoor bathrooms, and 3 or 4 grades per classroom  (Crumpley). 


            In 1954 the Brown v. Board of Education banned the practice of school segregation.  However, de facto segregation remained intact as whites were reluctant to send their children to school with blacks.  School boundary lines were constantly redrawn to keep blacks in black schools and prevent them from enrolling in predominantly white ones.  In 1968, a physics teacher at Paseo High School, which was originally all-white, but had a rapidly growing black student body, was transferred to Southwest, which at the time was practically 100% white.  To take his place, Paseo received a principles of sanitation teacher.  In essence, the physics class had been modified into a pre-janitorial vocational course  (Benson).  The message was clear.  The Kansas City Missouri school district was encouraging racial segregation and preventing black children from receiving the educational benefits that were available to whites. 

Within the realm of real estate, practices such as racial steering, red-lining, and block busting were rampant.  A common tactic was for a real estate agent to purchase a home in a white neighborhood that was just south of a black area.  The realtor would then rent the house to a black family who was under the impression that they would be living in an integrated neighborhood.  The whites in the area would become alarmed at the influx of blacks and would sell off their property at rates drastically lower than book value.  The realtors would buy the homes at discounted rates, and then sell them to blacks  (Benson).  While these neighborhoods would be integrated for short periods of time they would inevitably become victim to the “white flight” as paranoid whites would exile.

Urban studies have shown that in an average neighborhood 10 percent of homeowners and 38 percent of renters move per year.  It has also been shown that blacks view a neighborhood as “integrated” when a racial mix of half and half is achieved, while whites this psychological threshold at 25 percent, at which point they begin to exile, thus accounting for the speed at which white flight occurred  (McClanahan).  Real estate tactics, culminated with delapidated schools and the escalating crime rates as inner-city families moved to these formerly white neighborhoods caused property values to drop in the affected areas, thus confining blacks to urban ghettos  (Benson).

 By relocating to the suburbs, whites were able to circumvent the Brown decision and send their children to schools with little or no minority population  (Bickford).  The result was that in the thirty years after Brown v. Board of Education the enrollment of the Kansas City Missouri school district declined by nearly half, and the percentage of students who were white fell from 75% to 25%  (Ciotti). 

            In the early 1970’s white flight continued in Kansas City.  A pressing issue which contributed to this trend was the performance Kansas City’s schools and the district’s failure to improve them.  Whites living in Kansas City moved out of the city into the suburbs, or sent their kids to parochial schools in the area  (Ciotti).  As whites left the district it became increasilngly difficult to raise taxes and funding for the schools.  It is hardly ironic that the last year in which Kansas City voters approved tax increases to benefit the schools (1969) was the last year in which there were more white than minority students in the district  (Benson).  Over the course of the next twenty years, voters in Kansas City turned down initiatives for tax increases to benefit the schools in 19 straight elections.  As funding dwindled, the already troubled school district collapsed.  Standardized test scores dropped, school violence escalated, and teachers were leaving the district in record numbers.  Students were forced to sit in classrooms with falling ceilings and broken windows.  Testbooks were decades out of date, and simple amenities such as functional plumbing and heating were rare (Ciotti).  Dropout rates were increasing and the achievement gap between blacks and whites was the equivalent of three grade levels.  (Ciotti 2)

            By the mid 70’s 8 out of 10 black students attended schools which were at least 90 percent black.  The white students who remained in the district attended the schools with the most modern facilities, such as Southwest  (Crumpley).  While over half of the district’s students were black in 1971, Southwest’s student body still contained only “a score of black students and two or three black faculty members  (Matheny 71).

With the white community and its tax base having vitrually abandoned the Kansas City School District, the majority of the district’s funding came from the federal government.  By 1976 the federal government threatened to end the flow of funds to Kansas City if the district did not integrate its schools.  In response to the threats, the district devised “Plan 3C” which was envisioned to accomplish a 30 percent minority population at all of the Kansas City schools by using an intricate busing system.  Students who lived blocks away from their neighborhood school would be bused to different schools, often on the other side of town, in order to achieve the 30 percent integration levels.  (Crumpley).

            With the busing plan intact, district officials privately concluded that the only way to provide a quality education for inner-city black youths was to put them in the same classrooms as suburban white children  (Crumpley).  In 1977, with the school district on the verge of bankruptcy, a group of plaintiff schoolchildren took legal action against the district.  They alleged that the state of Missouri, its school districts, and various federal institutions had caused the district to become racially segregated.  The plaintifs cited the Brown decision, claiming that the school district had not completely abolished the institution racial segregation  (Ciotti). 

In 1984 a ruling on the case was decreed by District Judge Russell Clark.  It stated that the district and the state were “jointly and severally liable” for the segregation of the Kansas City schools.  Clark ordered the district to spend exorbidant amounts of money to improve the quality of the Kansas City School District in an effort to attract whites back to the city  (Ciotti).  If the district could not come up with the funding necessary, the burden would be passed on to the state which subsequently allocated over $2 billion worth of “desegregation payments” to the district over the course of the next ten years  (National Center for Policy Analysis). 

            The fundamental theory which drove the desegregation plan ascerted that if the quality of the facilities and resources of the Kansas City schools improved, white middle-class children would flock back to them, and racial integration would finally be achieved.  It was believed that whites would bring along with them their middle-class culture and aspirations which were in contrast to the themes of failure and prejudice which had permeated the black communtiy.  This “desegregation” would lead to a rejeuvenation of the overall educational experience of black inner-city students, and ultimately end the segregation of Kansas City schools and improve the performance of blacks on tests.   (Ciotti).

            Clark’s ruling gave the school district carte blanche to provide improvements to the schools.  He preached that “money is no object” and encouraged the district to “dream” for ways to provide a quality education.  This came to include fifteen new schools, an olympic sized swimming pool, field trips to Mexico and Senegal, state-of-the-art computers, 40% raises for teachers and faculty, and a student-teacher ratio of 12 to 1, lower than that of any other major school district in the nation.  At one point the district was spending $11,700 annually per student, more than any of the other 280 largest districts in the country (with figures adjusted based on cost of living).

            A prime component of the desegregation plan was the creation of and eventual transformation of all neighborhood schools into “magnet schools.”  These schools would specialize in a particular area of academia and students would have the option to be bused across the city to a school that could most appropriately serve their interests.  A computers and technology program was established at Central; a visual arts program at Paseo, and a mathematics and science program at Southwest.  Other magnets included enviromental studies, foreign languages, and even a classical Greek althletic program with a fencing team coached by the Soviet Union’s former Olympic fencing coach.  Teachers were recruited from around the world, and state money kept pouring into the district  (Ciotti).

            With the infrastructure in place district officials, backed by a $900,000 advertising campaign, began the process of attracting whites back to the school district.  Television ads were run showing the improvements the district had made.  A $6.4 million transportation budget was set aside in order to bus students to the school of their choice.  Kansas Citians joked that the explosion of the bus driving industry was the most beneficial effect of the desegregation process  (Ciotti).

            On paper the plan seemed as if it would work.  Whites had left Kansas City in favor of the Johnson County, Kansas and the surrounding Missouri suburbs in large part due to the superiority of the suburban schools in those areas.  Others chose to spend thousands of dollars per year on parochial school educations to prevent their children from attending Kansas City schools.  With schools in the city now boasting smaller classes, modern facilities, and copious educational resources, educators assumed they could sit back and wait for the white population to return.  Their assumption had some validity but two critical flaws.  1)  White students did return to Kansas City, but in numbers below those estimated when the desegregation plan went into effect.  When the desegregation plan was put into effect, new facilities were built to accommodate 5,000 to 10,000 white suburban students.  At the program’s peak, no more than 1,500 ever enrolled.  2) The white students who did return to Kansas City schools rarely stayed longer than a year before returning to their parochial or suburban public schools.  By 1996 only 387 suburban students were attending the district’s schools.  Former Kansas City mayor Emanuel Cleaver summarized that “You can’t just build a $6 million school facility, call it a magnet, offer some romantic courses and think all the white students are going to come  (Ciotti).”  Some critics blamed the failure of the program on racism on the part of whites, while others simply accredited it to the fact that whites were already receiving quality educations in the suburbs and were reluctant to leave  (Benson). 

            In addition to the not solving the problem desegregation payments were created to address, the influx of funds to the schools created additional issues for the district and the state alike.  The sudden change in the district’s budget proved to be too much for the district to handle.  From 1985 to 1992 the district’s expenditure budget jumped from $125 million to $432 million.  With a policy of basically unlimited funds, money was used to buy $700 light fictures in one school, a $40,000 trophy case in another and 286 and 386 model computers which became obsolete before they were taken out of storage and put into classrooms  (Ciotti).          

            While the Kansas City school district was spending money left and right, parents of students in Missouri’s other 529 districts were infuriated at the budget cuts they were being subjected to in order to fund Kansas City’s desegregation plan.

            With money-management and logistical problems looming, another issue arose which dated back to the pre-Brown days—the demise of neighborhood schools.  As in the days of “separate but equal” education, students were once again riding buses to schools across town.  Parents complained that desegregation and magnet schools were breaking down neighborhood continuity as children who grew up in close proximitity to each other were no longer attending school together.  Furthermore, it became difficult or impossible for students to partake in after-school activities.  Doing so would often require parents to drive across town to pick up their children from school. 

            Ethnographers explain the apparent racial segregation between cities and suburbs by two basic models: pull and push.  The pull model suggests that residents of urban areas are drawn towards the suburbs by a more desirable standard of living.  The push model suggests that the migration towards suburbs is a direct result of deteriorating conditions in inner cities  (Bickford).

            By examining Kansas City, Missouri it is apparent that the impetus behind both the push and the pull to the suburbs was the school system.  When education and segregation came to the limelight in Kansas City, education became the tool which would reverse the white flight that had separated the city  (Crumpley).  



Works Cited


Benson, Arthur.  “School Segregation and Desegregation in Kansas City.”


Bickford, Eric.  “White Flight:  The Effect of Minority Presence on Post World War      II Suburbanization.”  University of California-Berkeley.



Ciotti, Paul.  “Money and School Performance:  Lessons from the Kansas City

            Desegregation Experiment.”  Cato Policy Analysis No. 298.  3/16/98.


Ciotti, Paul.  America’s Most Costly Educational Failure.”  Cato Policy Analysis



Crumpley, Charles R.T.  School District’s Tragic Past Brings Traumatic Solution.” 

            The Kansas City Star.  5/8/94 pp. 1, A10-A11.


Matheny, Edward T. Jr.  The Rise and Fall of Excellence:  The Story of Southwest

            High School—RIP.  Leathers Publishing.  Leawood, KS:  2000.


“More Money Failed to Improve Schools in Missouri.”  National Center for Policy



McClanahan, Thomas E.  “Segregation in KC:  A Subdivision Shifts.”  The Kansas

            City Star.  5/3/87 pp. 1, 5A.