Beyond Our Borders
9:52 am
Fri June 27, 2014

How School And District Boundaries Shaped Education In Kansas City

Street map of Kansas City showing grade school and high school districts as well as the locations of schools. "Red Lines Indicate High School Boundaries" and "Colored School Districts" are marked in green.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library / Kansas City, Mo.

Earlier this year, we embarked on a year-long investigation of the lines that divide and unite us — starting with a look at Troost Avenue.

The road has been used as a border for many things, including neighborhood associations, census tracts, political districts and public schools. 

In what might be considered the Kansas City school district's darkest days, Troost, which was already becoming a racial dividing line, was established as a new boundary for many public schools in 1955. The move essentially extended segregation in Kansas City after Brown v. Board of Education.

The 1950s were arguably the start of a downward spiral for a district that still is struggling to reclaim accreditation and students. But the story of school boundaries in Kansas City, Mo., is about more than just district and neighborhood lines. Like in many urban areas, it also is a story about housing, race and discrimination.

The segregated district

Kansas City Missouri School District started in 1857 and wouldn't be called its current name — Kansas City Public Schools — until January 2012, just after the second loss of accreditation. (The district also lost accreditation in 2000, then regained provisional accreditation in 2002.)

In the early days, the Kansas City Missouri School District (KCMSD) was considered progressive and successful. Segregation, which began with Jim Crow laws, kept facilities separate for whites and blacks. Limited options for black children drew many families to the city center to attend the only black high school — Lincoln High.

When land was annexed by the city around the turn of the century, accompanying school districts were happy to join KCMSD and the district grew.

The long road to desegregation

The KCMSD started to quickly declined after the 1955 Supreme Court ruling that ordered all public schools in the United States to desegregate "with all deliberate speed."

Though the state of Missouri had overseen the segregation and education of black and white children through 1954, it left the task of desegregation to cities and towns.

During the next two decades, the all-white Kansas City school board (until 1968) got rid of explicitly racial school boundaries, but constantly shifted attendance boundaries. The board regularly redrew school boundaries to move the white sections of mixed neighborhoods into white school zones farther west.

A city of many districts

In the mid-1950s, desegregation wasn't the only big change going on in Kansas City. Suburban areas were desirable and the increasing affordability of automobiles allowed middle-class people to move further and further from the city center. The population and tax base began declining. Then-City Manager L.P. Cookingham saw annexation as the answer and began annexing land for Kansas City at a rapid pace.

But contrary to the last time swaths of land were annexed, the school districts did not want to come along. And after legislation was passed in 1957 at the urging of rural and suburban legislators, they didn't have to. Though the districts argued — and eventually the a U.S. judge would rule — the resistance to merging was not racially motivated, many argue it was.

House Bill 171 barred school district boundaries from automatically growing when Kansas City, Mo., annexed land. The city grew by nearly 220 square miles throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the school district stayed the same size.

There were great efforts to merge the districts, even resulting in legislative action headed by then Missouri Rep. Jim Spainhower. The Spainhower Commission sought to merge districts across the state in an effort to ensure "equal access to educational opportunity for all children." Again, the suburban districts and their representatives refused.

By the 1970s, Cookingham had successfully reestablished Kansas City's tax base through land annexation, and services like police and fire departments were healthy and well-funded. But the tiny central school district did not have the same fate. Facilities began to deteriorate and and test scores fell.

Eyes on KCMSD

White flight from the urban core continued as families left for outlying Kansas City communities served by once rural school districts, like Center and Hickman Mills. Civil rights groups started taking notice of the continued segregation in Kansas City public schools and in 1973, a lawsuit was filed by the Southern Christian Leadership Committee demanding desegregation. A year later, an investigation by the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare found that KCMSD had illegally perpetuated segregation and passed on opportunities to desegregate.

With federal funds in jeopardy, the district enacted "Plan 6-C," which included the realignment of attendance boundaries and bussing. White flight continued from the urban core and the plan failed.

Jenkins v. Missouri

For the next three decades, Kansas City would be wrapped up in legal battles, mainly the decisions spawned by a suit filed in 1977 by KCMSD on behalf of the students against Kansas, Missouri and the suburban districts in the metro area. KCMSD alleged it was the joint responsibility of the states and the suburban districts to be part of a solution to desegregate public schools in Kansas City, Mo. 

While KCMSD alleged racial discrimination was at play in the decisions of suburban districts against merging, the U.S. District Court of Western Missouri ruled in 1984 there were no signs of overt or intentional discrimination. The court also ruled that desegregation efforts could not be forced on the state. The ruling spurred the dismantling of desegregation efforts like bussing in many other cities.

In 1985, Federal Judge Russell Clark ordered an educational plan be drafted to rebuild the district at any cost — and that taxpayers would have to pay for it. The ruling birthed one of the most watched experiments in public education and for many answered the age-old question of whether or not money could buy educational success. 

New magnet schools were built, teacher salaries were increased and $2 billion dollars later the KCMSD had the best of the best. But the plan failed and the racial gap persisted.

After litigation finally came to an end, KCMSD continued on its downward spiral. The student population dwindled in numbers and only grew more homogenous. By 1996, KCMSD had a minority population of 77.9 percent. 

By 2000, when the district lost accreditation for the first time, charters were popping up across the metro thanks to a 1998 bill that aimed to give families other options besides moving to the suburbs.

The district has since regained and lost accreditation and charter schools have become popular choice for families living in city.

The next chapter for KCPS is still a mystery, but recent calls for reconsidering district mergers in St. Louis and the announcement of a charter-public school collaboration in Kansas City may be some indication that dramatic change is on the horizon.

This look at Kansas City's Troost corridor is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.