“If you have choice without civil rights policies, it stratifies the system.” – Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA

A panel took place recently that explored segregation in Kansas City. The guest speakers were Michelle Wimes, Mayor Sly James, Arthur Benson, and Tanner Colby. It’s important that this conversation took place here and that the focus was on Kansas City. Too often, Kansas City avoids this discussion, and would rather assume what is happening across the country is not the same as what is happening here.

Let’s break down a few of the points that were made regarding segregation in education.

Tanner Colby expressed that even for parents looking for an integrated school, there were few options. How do we define an integrated or segregated school?  Which Kansas City schools are integrated? There is no one formula that districts, cities, or states use. Here are a few of the ways different ways that question has been answered:


From Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools: “Given that black and Hispanic children make up 70% of our students citywide, we consider a school racially representative if black and Hispanic students combined make up at least 50% of the student population but no more than 90% of the student population.”

“We consider a school to be economically stratified if its economic need as measured by the Economic Need Index1 is more than 10 percentage points from the citywide average. A school can be stratified in either direction – by serving more low-income or more high-income children.”

“How do we define inclusive?  Schools where a significant, representative number of students who speak a language other than English at home are welcomed and served effectively. Schools where a significant, representative number of Students with Disabilities are welcomed and served effectively.  Rate equivalent to the borough population for high school and the district population for middle school.”


In Hartford, “the desegregation standard requires that white and Asian students account for at least 25 percent of the student body. For the past two years, court settlements have required that 47.5 percent of black and Latino Hartford students receive a “reduced-isolation” education. With that nearly 50-50 figure, supporters of the Sheff desegregation lawsuit frequently use the familiar half-filled glass analogy when describing the status of the suit 20 years after their Supreme Court victory. It is a reflection of both their pride in the multitudes of students who have been helped, and their despair that a majority of Hartford students still attend unconstitutionally segregated neighborhood schools.”

“Overall, state officials touted in December that they had placed 49 percent of Hartford’s black and Latino students in reduced-isolation settings this school year — up from 45.5 percent the year before. “The latest numbers show that more Hartford students than ever before are attending school in diverse settings,” State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell said.

“But, in reality, the state lost ground compared to last year, with all of the reported gains coming from new waivers granted to schools that did not meet the Sheff integration standard. Had the state calculated its progress using the same rules in place last year, it would have reported 300 fewer Hartford students in integrated schools.”


In Louisville, “Even after the Milliken decision, a panel in December of 1974 ordered the integration of the city and county schools to continue in the region. Beginning in 1975, students were sorted alphabetically and bused to different schools around the countyUnder the order, schools in the county had to be between 15 and 50 percent black.”

“Currently, the district puts schools in “clusters,” which are groups of diverse neighborhoods. Parents fill out an application listing their preferences for certain schools in the cluster, and the district assigns students to certain schools in order to achieve diversity goals. It does this by ranking census blocks on a number of factors, including the percentage minority residents, the educational attainment of adults, and household income, and mixing up students from various blocks. Parents can appeal the school assignments, but have no guarantee of getting their top choice. They can also apply for magnet schools and special programs such as Spanish-language immersion.”


Federal Judge Clark decreed in 1985 that Kansas City Public Schools should work towards establishing a ratio of 60% minority and 40% white enrollment at each of their schools. For reference, public school enrollment in 1990 in Kansas City was 34,850 students, with minorities making up 75% of students.

In 1992, the Christian Science Monitor reported:

“As part of the desegregation plan, Kansas City schools are expected to change the current 74 percent black, 26 percent white ratio to 60/40. Each magnet is supposed to increase the number of whites by 2 percent a year. The court monitoring committee and a judge evaluate student achievement test scores and black/white ratios every year.”

“We’re looking at the year 1998 to get to 65/35, and so I would think sometime after ’98 we should have 60/40 if we’re successful,” [said] Walter Marks, the district’s superintendent [at the time].”

The NY Times reported in 1995:

“For its part, the [Kansas City] school system, which wants the desegregation order to remain in effect, will argue that the full desegregation plan has been in place only three years — too little time to show marked academic improvement. Only about a fourth of the city’s schools meet the Federal court’s recommendation that enrollment be 65 percent members of minorities and 35 percent white.”

Next up, Mayor Sly James assessed that charter schools in Kansas City do a better job of offering an integrated education. However, looking at census data and stats from Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), it becomes clear that overall, charter schools are not doing a better job at providing integrated school choices in Kansas City.


District-wide census data in Kansas City shows the under 18 population 2011-2015 was:

32% White
46% Black
2.8% Asian
6.6% Multiracial
12% Other
22% Hispanic origin (of any race)

District-wide public school enrollment as reported in SY16-17 DESE data, shows that children enrolled within KCPS boundaries (at both charter and district schools) was:

9.8% White
57% Black
2.3% Asian
1.2% Multiracial
26% Hispanic

And here’s what the school breakdown looked like:

53 school buildings had a white student enrollment of less than 10%. 31 of these schools were charters, 22 of these schools were KCPS.

57% of minority students were enrolled in schools where less than 10% of students are white. 25 of these schools were charters, 11 of these schools were KCPS.

100% of white students were enrolled in schools where at least 10% of minority students were enrolled.

Of the 15 school buildings where enrollment included at least 10% white students, 9 were KCPS schools, and 6 were charters.

Of the 14 school buildings where enrollment was at least 10% each of white and black students, 8 were KCPS schools, and 6 were charter schools.

Of 10 school buildings where enrollment was at least 10% each of white, black, and Hispanic students, 6 were KCPS schools, and 4 were charter schools.


District-wide 2011-2015 data shows that 28% of residents are low-income. However, comparing economic segregation among schools was difficult, as many schools report that data differently. Missouri DESE Building Reports often provided different figures on the number of students at each school that qualify for free/reduced lunch, than the figures reported on Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) reports, for example.

It did become clear that there are systematic inequities at Kansas City schools and that the schools with the highest percentages of white enrollment closely mirror those with the lowest number of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch.

In our public schools (district+charters):

5 public school buildings have 19%-26% of enrolled students eligible for free/reduced lunch.

8 buildings have 32%-50% of students eligible for free/reduced lunch.

55 buildings where free/reduced lunch eligibility ranges from 50%-98%.

Finally, Wimes’ quote, “…any community that’s serious about diversifying should take that kind of self-intensive, reflective analysis.”

This is absolutely correct. But in addition to looking at individual schools or charter operators, Kansas City and the state of Missouri must be looking at this issue on larger scale. We need to look at this city-wide, metro-wide, district-wide.

NY Appleseed’s Within Our Reach series provides a blueprint for solutions that are equally applicable to our Kansas City schools:

“Although neighborhood segregation clearly plays a role in segregating … elementary schools, it does not explain the extent of school segregation we see in the city’s more diverse community school districts. In these areas it is not residential segregation but the city’s curious blend of student assignment by geography and by individual choice that explains the otherwise avoidable sorting of children by race and class. With higher income (predominantly white) parents free to leave zoned schools they don’t like and enabled to exclude others from the zoned schools they do like, racial and economic segregation in … elementary schools is all but inevitable.”

This exactly what is happening here in Kansas City and many other cities. We need to learn from what is working and what is not working in other cities. We do not need to reinvent the process and start from scratch here. There are many examples to learn from, and we must pressure our elected officials at the school, city, and state levels to make these changes.

Like NY Appleseed suggests, the best practice would be to look at the broader picture:

“Because segregation is a systemic problem, we believe that systemic, community-school-district-wide solutions are most likely to be effective in fostering diverse schools. In fact, pursuing diversity in a single school without regard for the effects of the policy on surrounding schools can increase segregation across a district as a whole (a common problem with charter schools).

As Professor Orfield noted, choice without civil rights policies stratifies the system. Such civil rights policies are essentially mechanisms that counteract the segregating effects of unbridled choice while preserving its benefits.”

There are those in Kansas City that advocate for integrating individual schools. And though implementing these programs at a school level does not provide a larger solution for our city, controlled choice enrollment should be a method these schools are encouraged to consider implementing once demand becomes high enough to surpass the available spaces. Cities like San Antonio and New York City are recognizing that reserving spaces for low-income students, or students with ELL or 504 needs, is a way to ensure that we don’t create more segregated and economically stratified schools. “If I just let the pool reflect the way the cards fall, then the school would become an island of affluence.” – Mohammed Choudhury, the district administrator in charge of enrollment at San Antonio ISD.

Today’s Kansas City Star article about the whitest charter school in Kansas City provides a look at exactly what happens when school choice is allowed to flourish without civil rights protections. This charter operates in a building that was once a French immersion school within the Kansas City Public School District and had a predominantly black enrollment. But the current racial makeup of this charter, as well as the neighborhood school mentioned, is not the only demographic glaringly dissimilar to public schools city-wide. Their economic makeup is also a stark contrast. These schools serve the lowest percentage of students that are eligible for free/reduced lunch, below 25%. Other Kansas City schools serve as many as 98%.

The rise of school choice and charter schools in Missouri, coupled with inadequate limits and enrollment oversight, has allowed Kansas City schools to continue to segregate.  Kansas City must do as Michelle Wimes suggests and take good, long look at ourselves. We need to have conversations about how diversity and integration has the potential to lift up all of our students, as well as the best ways to implement it in our city.


Integrating a School, One Child at a Time

East is West & West is East: Segregation in Kansas City

Which Schools Are Integrated?

Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools

In Hartford, “Integrated” Schools Remain Highly Segregated

The City That Believed in Desegregation

Magnets “Attract” In Kansas City

Kansas City’s Widely Debated Desegregation Case Reaches the Supreme Court

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education –  School Data

Within Our Reach. Segregation in NYC Elementary Schools and What We Can Do About It: School to School Diversity

San Antonio ISD’s Plan to Disrupt Economically Segregated Schools

The Public Charter Became the Whitest in the Kansas City District

Kansas City’s High Stakes Education Gamble

Panel Discussion: East is West & West is East: Segregation in Kansas City