Study: KC Dollar Deluge Fails to Raise Test Scores

Published October 1, 1998

After doing everything educators claim is needed to increase student achievement–reducing class sizes, lowering teacher workloads, hiking teacher pay, and dramatically increasing per-pupil spending–Kansas City has learned the hard way that none of it works.

Despite court-ordered spending of as much as $11,700 per pupil, “test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration,” according to the author of a recently released Cato Institute study. When per-pupil spending is adjusted for cost-of-living, Kansas City is found to spend more per-pupil than any of the 280 largest districts in the country.

In Money and School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment, Paul Ciotti describes how a federal judge ordered Kansas City, Missouri, to do something educators claimed no one had ever tried before: to solve education problems by throwing money at them. State and local taxpayers paid for 15 new schools, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, field trips to Mexico and Senegal, higher pay for teachers, and classes with student-teacher ratios as low as 12 to 1. But the spectacular spending produced only dismal results.

“The Kansas City experiment,” Ciotti concludes, “suggests that, indeed, educational problems can’t be solved by throwing money at them, that the structural problems of our current educational system are far more important than a lack of material resources, and that the focus on desegregation diverted attention from the real problem, low achievement.”

Federal Judge Russell Clark had ordered the spending of nearly $2 billion over the twelve years between 1985 and 1997. At the time, the judge’s chief education advisor had assured him that such a level of funding would raise student achievement on standardized tests above state averages within just five years.

Under the judge’s order, spending in the Kansas City school district soared, from $125 million in 1985 to $432 million in 1992, creating new schools and facilities, adding new computer and video technology, and raising salaries by 40 percent. Ciotti notes that the salary increase “didn’t so much attract better teachers as convince poor teachers to stick with the district as long as they could because they were getting salaries they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

But test scores failed to improve. “Year after year the test scores would come out, the achievement levels would be no higher than before, and the black-white gap (one-half a standard deviation on a standard bell curve) would be no smaller,” relates Ciotti. Standardized test scores show black twelfth-graders to be about three years behind their white counterparts. After four years of high school, the average black student’s reading skills improved by only 1.1 grade equivalents.

The dismal results achieved by Kansas City’s spending spree are tragically ironic: Judge Clark’s partial takeover of the school district came after the court found the system unconstitutionally segregated, with dilapidated facilities and minority students who performed poorly.

“All the money spent in Kansas City brought about neither integration nor higher levels of achievement,” concludes Ciotti. “The lessons of the Kansas City experiment should stand as a warning to those who would use massive funding and gold-plated buildings to encourage integration and improve education.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].