January 9, 2012 07:30 AM

According to KMBZ radio's Bill Grady, the Kansas City public school district may be the worst in the country. That assessment comes from the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Something needs to be done to turn things around, and it must be something drastic; half measures won't save us.

To make matters worse, Missouri is facing at least a $750 million budget shortfall for 2012. This does not bode well for a state whose urban population reside in cities with unaccredited school districts, a fact which will continue to have especially dire consequences for the city and state tax coffers. While both Kansas City and St. Louis see their middle class move into the tony suburbs to escape dismal education systems, in Kansas City most of those suburbs are actually across the state line—in Johnson County, Kansas.

As a result, these urban refugees take their tax dollars and spending dollars (supply-siders take note) with them out of Missouri. Once they move they are not coming back; neither is the tax revenue. This will continue to be the case as long as the Kansas City Missouri School District continues its 30-year attempt to destroy the whole community.

While this problem is dire, it is not hopeless. However, it will take some creative solutions—Kansas City prides itself as an entrepreneurial city. One way that would save tax dollars, keep the middle class and their revenue streams from leaving the state plus help the poorly served and educationally deprived inner-city families, is to move as many students as one can out of these failing state sponsored schools and into private parochial schools.

George Henry, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, recently testified that the Archdiocese was able and willing to initially accept up to 8,000 students from the failing St. Louis City public school district. Dr. Dan Peters, his counterpart in the Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joe testified that he has immediate room for 1,100 students. Moving 8,000 students from St. Louis’s unaccredited schools into the Archdiocese's accredited schools would save the Missouri taxpayer about $88,000,000 a year. Doing the same in Kansas City for 1,100 students would save the Missouri taxpayer $11,000,000 each year.

It costs the St. Louis public school district roughly $16,000 and the Kansas City public school district $15,000 to educate a student. It currently only costs the Archdiocese and the Diocese only about $5,000 per student. Moving all the students out of the failed St. Louis and Kansas City Missouri public school districts into working Catholic schools would save the Missouri tax payer about $400 million each and every year.

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While it is unrealistic that every student in the failing school districts would choose to attend a Catholic school, it is astonishing to see that parochial schools educate students far better and for much less than the state sponsored public schools. They have also been doing this for a very long time.

The existing benefits that Catholic schools currently provide the Missouri taxpayer go unheralded and the efforts of parents who work and struggle to afford their children an excellent education to stay in these shrinking-declining urban areas go unrewarded. Yet Missouri benefits immensely from Catholic schools in the form of tax revenue. The Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joe educates over 12,000 students.  Combine this with the additional 2,500 students attending private non-diocesan Catholic schools and you have a population on par with the city's public school population. This is startling when one realizes that in its heyday the Kansas City Missouri School District contained 75,000 students.

These Kansas City/St. Joe Catholic schools currently save the state over $170 million. That number is even larger in St. Louis. Tax dollars are not spent on students who attend Catholic schools even though their parents pay taxes. And these privately funded schools outperform their public counterparts.  The high school graduation rate for the Kansas City/St. Joe Diocese is 99.9% compare that with the State of Missouri’s 88% or the dismal rate of 55.1% for the Kansas City public schools. Ninety-eight percent of all Catholic high school graduates attend college. Catholic schools achieve high scores on the ACT averaging 24.7 versus 21.6 for the state. Missouri needs to figure out a way to let under-served students benefit from these excellent schools in their communities—Catholic schools are neighborhood schools. And the respective mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City know this—both were educated at their local Catholic high schools.

Both mayors also know that the current system where the state spends $500 million each and every year on two failed school districts must end. We need better options. That option exists-so why not exercise it and let state education dollars follow the students? This possibility was mentioned by Tom McClanahan, a member of The Kansas City Star's editorial board

As for vouchers, I do see a competitive process as the long-term answer to America’s education woes, although in Missouri they’re effectively barred by the state Constitution.

The relevant language says, “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church ... or teacher thereof.” That would limit the effectiveness of vouchers by removing religious schools from the array of choices.

Some lawmakers have tried, unsuccessfully, to get around this provision by creating scholarships funded by tax credits. Students receiving the money could use it for tuition at private or public schools of their choice, creating the competitive environment on which real improvement depends. Approval of such a program would be a big step forward.

Amen! Let the parents of these students decide where to send their children-not some state bureaucrat. Barb Shelly, another member of the star editorial board suggests shrinking the district by letting neighboring districts take in some schools. Of the smaller remaining district she suggests,

Its charter would create a board consisting of community leaders and educational experts. The chancellor of the Metropolitan Community College might have a seat, for instance, and/or the dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Education. The mayor and at least one parent would have a seat. This board would either appoint the new district’s top executive, academic and business officers, or perhaps appoint a smaller, more hands-on board to make those decisions.

But this is not what Shelly wants for her own children—for that she chose Rockhurst, a private Catholic high school. It is time to empower the parents and emancipate all students from these failed districts by allowing the parents of these students the true freedom of choice-the freedom to choose the schools to send their children to. It worked for Sly and Slay, their constituents deserve no less.

After all, according to the top education bureaucrat in the country, nothing we do could be worse than what we've already been doing.

John Murphy was born and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn and educated at Fordham University. Murphy began his career working at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street and remains actively involved in the financial markets today. He lives in Kansas City with his family.

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Reader Comments (2)
Vouchers would be workable if vouchers allow TRUE private choice. What does that mean? That means the receiving school would be able to keep its own standards and assessments instead of having to adopt the common core standards as the traditional public schools and publicly funded charter schools are currently mandated to do. Why choose a school that's under the same script as the ones that are failing? If the money can follow the student and NOT the common core mandates, it might work. If the money is tied to the common core, shelve the idea. Students will be receiving the same education, just in a different building with different teachers/administrators. Private schools might want to think long and hard in the above scenario. Being truly private gives a school autonomy; accepting governmental mandates negates that autonomy.
1/10/2012 5:04:40 PM  Gretchen Logue  , St. Louis
Good article about one of the negative effects of failed government schools. A may short book that effectively addresses the causes and solutions to education woes is "Lets Put Parents back in Charge!" downloadable from Heartland Institute. Another. very readable and thought provoking book on education is "The Beautiful Tree" available from CATO Institute.
1/9/2012 8:09:59 AM  Ed Emery  , Lamar

The existing benefits that Catholic schools currently provide the Missouri taxpayer go unheralded and the efforts of parents who work and struggle to afford their children an excellent education to stay in these shrinking-declining urban areas go unrewarded.

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