Every school system is facing uncomfortable cuts. Discussions have involved trimming programs, laying off teachers and even consolidation. But for urban school districts, this economic shortfall is threatening the ultimate collapse of district services. Wednesday night, the Kansas City, Mo., School Board voted 5-4 to close almost half of the district's buildings including schools.
For more than five decades, an incendiary situation has been building. The Great Recession of 2009 has become the spark that started a wildfire that could consume many metropolitan school systems.
Every school system is facing uncomfortable cuts. Discussions have involved trimming programs, laying off teachers and even consolidation.
But for urban school districts, this economic shortfall is threatening the ultimate collapse of district services.
Detroit voters are considering disbanding the school board and putting schools under the supervision of the mayor and city council.
Wednesday night, the Kansas City, Mo., school board voted 5-4 to close almost half of the district's buildings including schools.
The number of students in Kansas City has been continually dropping for more than 50 years. Now with further cuts in state and federal aid - and the end of funding from a $2 billion reserve account the district accumulated after a court-ordered desegregation plan - they were facing potential bankruptcy if drastic measures weren't taken immediately.
"The urban core has suffered white flight post-the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education," said board member Sharon Sanders Brooks. "And now the public education system is aiding and abetting in the economic demise of our school district. It is shameful and sinful."
The problem does go back to the landmark Supreme Court case that did away with the Plessey v. Ferguson ruling that segregation was acceptable as long as services and facilities were separate but equal.
In the Brown ruling, the court unanimously concluded that separate was inherently unequal in education.
After that 1954 decision, black students were no longer bused to one of four "black" schools in Topeka. They were free to attend any of the district's 22 schools.
But Brooks is wrong that closing the schools in Kansas City is somehow immoral. It is true that separate is unequivocally unequal. But it is equally true that parents want the best for their children.
Schools in lower socio-economic environments tend to produce students with lower test scores. So parents with the means pull their students out of these failing schools and enroll them in suburban, private or parochial schools. This pattern is sometimes referred to as "white flight."
But the truly insidious competitor with inner city state-funded schools is the state-funded magnet school.
These schools take selected students out of the regular environment and put them into specialized schools that focus on science and math, the arts or other disciplines. This pulls top performers from already struggling schools thus lowering average results even further.
One ironic twist is that the Topeka School District is host to a magnet school only a few blocks from the National Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site.
As parents have pulled their students into environments that are more conducive to higher achievement, districts like Kansas City have seen their enrollments drop to levels similar to those of a century ago. As the students leave these districts, they take with them the per student state funding.
So with their student population cut in half, Kansas City was left with no choice but to make drastic cuts in buildings and employees.
No solution has been found to extinguish the problem of low performing schools in impoverished inner-city areas.
Schools are no longer segregated but they aren't any closer to being equal than they were before. Perhaps the demise of inner city districts will force students into more balanced schools.
The irony would be how far students would have to be bused before they reach their new, higher performing schools.
Kent Bush is publisher of the Augusta (Kan.) Gazette.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the newspaper.