Let our children go!


Kansas City:



By Jack Cashill 

A passerby might wonder why these cheerful, uniform-clad children are scurrying about in a parking lot, carefully dodging parked cars, before heading into what appears to be a warehouse in a small industrial park. What can possibly be going on here?

In a word, recess.

The warehouse provides a home for Padre Pio Academy, a small traditional Catholic start-up school striving to find its place in a world historically indifferent to its existence. If the school's exterior is steely and charmless, the interior is anything but. The staff and boosters have managed to carve out some surprisingly warm spaces, including a bright and cheery classroom for the youngest kids, a few nicely shelved and carpeted class areas for the older ones, and a chapel for them all.

Despite its obvious humility, Padre Pio--and schools comparably inspired--may show Kansas City the way out of its educational morass. For what the school provides is an atmosphere more sane, secure and studious than in any public school in Kansas City. True, there is no Olympic-size swimming pool, but at $2600 tuition for the first kid--or $4600 for three or more--you can't have it all.

By contrast, the richly-appointed Kansas City School District (KCSD), warehouses its students only figuratively. The problem is that its educational outcomes are literal, depressingly so. Indeed, no school district in the history of the world has spent as much money--literally--as the Kansas City School District has over the last twenty five years. And yet no school district in America--literally--performs worse.

Two years ago the KCSD lost its mother-loving license. And although the district has regained provisional accreditation, it is hard to understand why. In only two schools out of seventy, do students read at grade level. If any any citizens anywhere deserve the opportunity to deconstruct the public education paradigm, they are surely Kansas City's.

The timing is good. In June the United States Supreme Court agreed that states have the right to liberate children from what Judge Clarence Thomas called "inner-city public schools that deny emancipation to urban minority students." Thomas traces his own emancipation to the "rigorous" Catholic schools he attended in Savannah, Georgia. Schools like Padre Pio.

The most likely method of liberation is the voucher, the scariest word in the educational vocabulary since "teacher testing." The court's approval of the concept has denied voucher opponents the pious cover of church-state separation. While they scramble to find some new rationale to cloak their now naked self interest, the citizenry has a real chance to loosen their death grip on local public education.

Half measures won't do. Half measures will make the school district only marginally less awful. Nor will half measures erase the stigma attached to the Kansas City name. Even while city leaders vainly debate which "flavor" emanates from Kansas City--jazz, barbecue, cowtown etc.--developers know that the city's most distinctive contemporary fragrance is eau d'illiteracy, and new business, alas, steers clear of the stink.

It is past time for a new and entirely viable market position: the boldest and best school district in America. To seize the position, the nabobs of city and state have to act with the kind of gumption not seen since Kansas City swiped the Hannibal Bridge from Leavenworth.

The state legislature starts by showing a little moxie. It declares the Kansas City School District a de-monopolized zone (DMZ). This means that every educational entity within the district competes on equal footing for every school kid and that all students who live within the district are eligible for a voucher, regardless of their means. When the plan is fully implemented, that voucher will have a value equal to the state per-student norm, now roughly $6,000, and proportionately more for kids with special needs.

Currently, it costs about $9,000 to educate a kid in Kansas City public schools. Under the DMZ plan, the District will be able to educate 50% more students at the same total cost. This should easily accommodate the parochial, private and home school students now paying their own freight.

To succeed, the DMZ plan has to leave the Padre Pio's alone. Organized as a home school--and some "home schools" in Kansas have as many as 700 students--Padre Pio now reports to the state only on the matter of attendance. Its accreditation comes through NAPCIS, the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools. These schools will flee the DMZ program if anyone meddles.

The educational establishment--and you can go to the bank on this one--will try to do just that. The subversives within will scheme to kill the program by insisting on the kind of "conditions" that now swamp public educators everywhere. For the DMZ program to succeed, there can be no such conditions. A voucher should be as personal and inviolable as a social security check. We may want that money to end up in a bank and not in a slot machine, but we are not about to monitor its disposition.

Will there be charlatans afoot? You betcha. The DMZ plan will deprive many an administrative slug of a lifelong sinecure. They will now have to float their scams on an open market. Citizens, however, can take take comfort in the knowledge that not even the most devious among them could construct a monopoly as pointless and unproductive as the Kansas City School District. And parents can take comfort in the fact that they no longer have to send their children to any such school. Unlike the KCSD, these schools will quickly disappear.

Will voucherized schools, as critics predict, self-segregate and slight America's shared heritage? It's possible, but could they do more of either than the Kansas City School District's 97% black J.S. Chick Elementary? Chick's "African-centered curriculum," we are told, focuses on the "social, historical, cultural, and spiritual development of people of African descent." (What must those white first graders think?) It is hard to imagine any school organizers east of Idaho concocting a more racist, exclusionary curriculum. Besides, home schoolers and parochial schoolers have historically been far more keen on United States history and civics than their public school peers.

At the end of the day, if the DMZ plan is followed, just about everyone wins. Minority kids get their best shot at educational emancipation since Brown v. The Board of Education. Teachers can teach at a decent salary in a wide range of decent schools. Home school parents get to stay at home and still pay their bills. Economic developers can point with pride to the nation's most progressive school district. Housing values and tax revenues soar as middle-class parents swarm back into the city. And the kids at Padre Pio move to a school house made out of something other than corrugated metal.

Meanwhile, the other districts across the state and across the nation sit back and watch and wonder whether they too may opt to be a DMZ. OK, Kansas City remains an educational petri dish, but at least this time the experiment is designed to enrich the kids, not the public school establishment.



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