For all the talk about improving urban public education, the needle isn’t moving enough.
Let’s start with something positive here, and a big hats-off to Lia McIntosh, director of the civic effort known as KC Rising. As Black History Month dawned, she issued a brief commentary celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech. “Dr. King knew that economies thrive through increased participation when everyone has equitable opportunities to advance,” McIntosh wrote. “Dr. King knew that economic inclusion is not just the right thing to do: Growing economies rely on a broader-based opportunity that proactively recruits and elevates women and people of color.”
In normal times, those sentiments would reflect a mainstream of American thought. Maybe they still do, but these are not normal times.
McIntosh is to be applauded for correctly implying that the buzzword of 2022—“inclusion”—is not the opposite of “opportunity.” It’s possible to strive for both in the workplace. In the current environment, though, you’d have a hard time finding many who would agree with her. Instead, “equity” has become code for relieving Group A of certain assets in order to elevate Group B without consideration of whether that’s even sustainable.
That’s where “opportunity” comes in. We all have different talents and different shortcomings. I know corporate leaders in this town who are hard chargers perfect for driving organizational growth, but I wouldn’t want them coaching the fragile psyches of a middle-school basketball team.
The great fallacy of this age is that the self-proclaimed elites who lead us can ensure “equitable” outcomes across a diverse range of 330 million people. The great mystery behind that fallacy is why so many executives at large corporations and institutions play the DEI game in its current formulation. A tremendous amount of lip service and resources pour forth from the C-Suites in praise of the god Equity.
And yet, fully three decades after diversity in business leadership burst into Corporate America’s consciousness, the needle hasn’t moved a hell of a lot on the composition of leadership ranks and corporate boards. Why do you think that is?
Here’s a clue: Meritocracy. It’s indeed a thing. If an economy is to grow and people are to experience new opportunities to climb the income ladder, we have to embrace it. To do otherwise—to focus on ESG rather than hard growth metrics and returns on capital invested—is to take the first step on the path to irrelevance.
Not long before the pandemic, I used this space to condemn the Kansas City School District for the 2019 cash grab that followed a huge surge in property valuations as Jackson County ham-fisted its reappraisals. After pointing out that the district already was spending more per pupil than one of the top schools in the metro (full disclosure: my older son was at Rockhurst at the time, as is his younger brother today), we received an online response from a KCSD family’s matriarch.
Let’s call her Karen Karenofski. Not only was I elitist and racist, she huffed, I was ill-informed on the social conditions that fueled the decline of the Kansas City district. I must have missed a few things during my 20 years of residency here. A favorite trope of this cohort is to blame “white flight,” as though black kids are incapable of learning on their own. Sure enough, she fell back on it, even though the Kansas City district has seen just as much “black flight” to suburban districts over the decades. You don’t get from 75,000 students to 14,000 through white flight alone.
Karen is one of those proud mothers who publicly proclaim a commitment to urban education but privately limit their own children’s high school experience to Lincoln Prep. That’s the academic crown jewel of this city’s schools, with a 2022 average composite ACT score of 20.8. These oh-so-socially-conscious parents wouldn’t think of sending their kids to any of the five other high schools, where scores ranged from 13.4 to 13.6, another 13.6, a 13.7, and 14.4. (Those 2022 scores, it should note, have fallen significantly at every one of those high schools, including Lincoln Prep, since the cash infusion began in 2020.)
Karen’s outrage would be better directed at the root causes of underperformance. To be fair, the fault lies not with the school district administration or the teachers. They’ve been handed a steaming hot mess with a student body that, in too many cases, is wholly unprepared to learn—and that rolls back to the sorry excuses for parents who enabled such collective failure.
You change that, you change outcomes.
Even within the wreck of an educational system, some gems will shine. Some kids will excel, some will beat state-average ACT scores, and some will even outperform peers at Rockhurst or Pembroke Hill. They are the ones who can take advantage of the opportunities to elevate their status in life.
As we’ve seen from half a century of billions injected into urban districts, no amount of money can correct what’s wrong here. The educational system will never deliver “equity”—it’s a pipe dream, one that allows those empowered to enact radical change to maintain the status quo.
I’ve been hearing about the need for a national discussion on race all my life. If we’re ever going to start that, it’d be nice if we’d do it from a position of intellectual honesty. And get back to where Dr. King took us.
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