Too Little, Too Late: The Illusive Goal of School Desegregation in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Role of the Federal Government
by Peter William Moran — 2005
This article explores the twisting and complicated history of school desegregation in Kansas City, Missouri, as an example of how illusive meaningful racial integration was and still is in urban America. The goal of desegregation was difficult to achieve from the beginning, when the school district adopted its initial desegregation plan based on neighborhood schools. This article examines the impact of that plan and its many shortcomings, particularly the provision permitting students to transfer between schools and the manner in which massive demographic change in the city undermined desegregation. The role of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) is also examined in detail, especially the department's part in pressuring school officials in Kansas City to reform the original plan in the early 1970s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Kansas City school district, like a great many other urban school districts, had experienced massive white and middle-class flight that left it with a smaller tax base and significant fiscal difficulties. Consequently, the Kansas City Public Schools grew increasingly reliant on federal funding. In compelling Kansas City to make changes to its desegregation plan, HEW officials used a "carrot and stick" approach. On one hand, HEW offered incentives to the school district in the form of large grants; on the other hand, HEW coerced the school district into making reforms by threatening to terminate the school district's federal funding. Ultimately, the desegregation that was accomplished in Kansas City was far too little and came far too late, after the school district had lost most of its white students to the predominantly white suburbs beyond. This historical analysis of school desegregation in Kansas City is important because it illustrates how race, inequality, and segregation profoundly affected an urban school district's willingness and ability to implement Brown, with or without federal funding. Similar stories echo through urban school districts across the United States.
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