Kansas City's Magnet Schools Were A Dream Realized, Then Gone In A Generation

Aug 8, 2016

As part of our 30/30 Vision series, KCUR takes a look at three of Kansas City’s grandest ideas from the last 30 years. Here's the first:

A Kansas City Missouri School District brochure about magnet schools was titled 'Building our future through diversity: 1990 report to the community.'
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library

When Russell G. Clark died in 2004, The Kansas City Star noted that the former U.S. District Judge had endured death threats over his effort “to transform the Kansas City School District.” Clark had ordered the district and the state of Missouri to “wipe out segregation.”

School segregation wasn’t a problem unique to Kansas City, but Clark’s November 1986 remedy was the nation’s most expensive. Besides raising teacher salaries and other improvements, the most remarkable element of Clark’s solution involved converting most of the district’s “rotted” buildings to state-of-the-art magnet schools.

How Clark got to this decision requires entire books to explain, but the idea was huge and noble: Rather than force busing of suburban white kids into the urban core, the magnets would lure them with programs and amenities more attractive than they could get in, say, Blue Valley.

The U.S. Supreme Court would later note these amenities in a striking litany: “a 2,000-square-foot-planetarium; green houses and vivariums; a 25-acre farm with an air-conditioned meeting room for 104 people; a Model United Nations wire for language translation; broadcast-capable radio and television studios with an editing and animation lab; a temperature-controlled art gallery; movie editing and screening rooms; a 3,500-square-foot dust-free diesel mechanics room; 1,875-square-foot elementary school animal rooms for use in a zoo project; swimming pools, and numerous other facilities.”

The Supreme Court was weighing in because it had been dealing with Kansas City’s schools since 1977, first because they were so segregated and ultimately because Clark’s plan had cost Missouri taxpayers more than $2 billion. In 1995, less than a decade after Clark’s ruling, the Supreme Court put a stop to his plan. It was just too expensive.

“For a generation of kids, they were wonderful,” plaintiffs’ attorney Arthur Benson says of the magnets. “Every black kid in the district had the advantage of attending an enhanced magnet school at the same time as the district was trying to retain whites, attract whites from private schools and attract suburban students. All of that worked. We had 1,800 white kids from the suburbs enrolled in our schools when the Supreme Court put the kibosh on it.”

Others were not nearly so enthusiastic. Though some parents praised certain magnets, the palatial schools didn’t automatically increase the quality of teaching or raise test scores, and other intractable problems remained.

“It’s insulting to be told the quality of my child’s education depends on the number of white children in the room,” Ed Newsome told Newsweek, who identified him as a “critic” of the district; he would go on to become school board president.

In putting a stop to Clark’s plan, the Supreme Court noted that he had allowed the school district’s planners “to dream.”

But 20 years later, the Kansas City Public Schools’ new master plan mentions the magnets almost in passing: “Some educational programs in place today in KCPS are remnants of their earlier ‘magnet school era.’ Some continue to serve a neighborhood population; others are only available to students who qualify based on entrance requirements.”

Benson still believes the magnets could have worked if they’d had more time.

“A different question,” he says, “is whether the school desegregation plan overall was a big success.”

We know the answer. The Kansas City School District’s current enrollment is 9 percent white.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.