Public School Desegregation and the White Flight:
A Case Study of the Kansas City, Missouri School District
By: Ben Ross
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
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
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).
the demise of Southwest High
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.
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).
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).
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).
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
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).
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
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
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
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).
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).
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
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
Benson, Arthur. “School Segregation and
Desegregation in Kansas
Bickford, Eric. “White Flight: The Effect of Minority Presence on Post World
War II Suburbanization.” University of
Ciotti, Paul. “Money and School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas
Analysis No. 298. 3/16/98.
Ciotti, Paul. “America’s Most Costly Educational Failure.” Cato
Charles R.T. “School
District’s Tragic Past Brings
City Star. 5/8/94 pp. 1,
Matheny, Edward T. Jr. The Rise and Fall
of Excellence: The Story of Southwest
High School—RIP. Leathers Publishing. Leawood, KS:
“More Money Failed to Improve
Schools in Missouri.” National Center
McClanahan, Thomas E. “Segregation in KC: A Subdivision Shifts.” The
Star. 5/3/87 pp. 1, 5A.