Unreconstructed liberals, of whom the field of education attracts a disproportionate number, perhaps on account of its Rousseauian tendencies, like to imagine that funding disparities, and not dysfunctional urban underclass institutions, are at the bottom of differences in school quality and performance.
In 1985 a federal district judge took partial control over the troubled Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) on the grounds that it was an unconstitutionally segregated district with dilapidated facilities and students who performed poorly. In an effort to bring the district into compliance with his liberal interpretation of federal law, the judge ordered the state and district to spend nearly $2 billion over the next 12 years to build new schools, integrate classrooms, and bring student test scores up to national norms.
It didn't work. When the judge, in March 1997, finally agreed to let the state stop making desegregation payments to the district after 1999, there was little to show for all the money spent. Although the students enjoyed perhaps the best school facilities in the country, the percentage of black students in the largely black district had continued to increase, black students' achievement hadn't improved at all, and the black-white achievement gap was unchanged.(1)
The situation in Kansas City was both a major embarrassment and an ideological setback for supporters of increased funding for public schools. From the beginning, the designers of the district's desegregation and education plan openly touted it as a controlled experiment that, once and for all, would test two radically different philosophies of education. For decades critics of public schools had been saying, "You can't solve educational problems by throwing money at them." Educators and advocates of public schools, on the other hand, had always responded by saying, "No one's ever tried."
In Kansas City they did try. A sympathetic federal judge invited district educators literally to "dream"--forget about cost, let their imaginations soar, put together a list of everything they might possibly need to increase the achievement of inner-city blacks--and he, using the extraordinarily broad powers granted judges in school desegregation cases, would find a way to pay for it.
By the time the judge took himself off the case in the spring of 1997, it was clear to nearly everyone, including the judge, that the experiment hadn't worked.