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Researcher weighs contributing factors to inequality in K.C. schools

Thursday, May 08, 2014

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor has co-authored a study showing that differences between school districts in greater Kansas City, often attributed to race, have been shaped by factors such as parents’ education and affluence, helping sustain disadvantage in some districts and deepen school inequality.

John Rury, professor of educational leadership and policy studies, evaluated metropolitan Kansas City census data from 1960 to 1980 to show that districts that were home to the highest percentage of parents with college education were also among the most affluent and had the wealthiest, highest-quality schools. The study is among the first to match these patterns with what has often been attributed to “white flight,” the trend of white families leaving urban school districts after World War II, while those school districts became largely African-American.

Rury, who authored the study with post-doctoral research assistant Sanae Akaba, presented the research at the American Educational Research Education Association annual meeting in April, and it has been accepted for publication in the French journal Histoire et Mesure (History and Measurement). An earlier version was presented at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris last April. Research for the study was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

As school districts in the United States are locally controlled and supported by property taxes, wealthy districts with high property values have long had an advantage. Rury and Akaba poured through census-tract data to show that what have long been known to be the wealthiest districts in Kansas City were also home to the highest percentage of college-educated parents. That is significant because students with college-educated parents are more than two times as likely to persist to graduation than those without, even if wealth and other attributes were similar. The study is among the first to focus on geographic placement of educated adults with respect to school quality.

“When we controlled for college-educated parents, those students were only 12 percent more likely to graduate,” Rury said. “When we controlled for race, gender, home ownership, poverty status and similar factors, and not parental education, Johnson County kids were 35 percent more likely to graduate.”

Johnson County, a Kansas City suburb on the Kansas side, is home to the Shawnee Mission School district, which included communities such as Fairway, Prairie Village and Mission Hills, where unusually high numbers of college-educated parents lived at both points in time. On the Missouri side, as people moved out of the center of the city, many white families moved to the Raytown district in the southeast part of the city. While many were middle class, they had considerably less education. Some could not afford to move to Johnson County, and others may not have wanted to leave Missouri. But for many, school quality may not have been that important, as long as they were predominantly white. This was a more blue collar area and had many fewer college graduates in the adult population, Rury said.

In a different study, Rury examined real estate ads in the post-war era. He found that the Shawnee Mission district was mentioned the most by a wide margin. That evidence highlighted the connection between educational attainment and property values as factors in where adults chose to live at the time.

White flight was certainly a factor in changing school demographics after World War II, but it was not the only cause of the growing gap in educational equality. In fact, many of the patterns of inequality began appearing before major issues of school integration took place in Kansas City. Rury said the evidence suggests that many college-educated people new to the metro area in this period chose to settle in Johnson County. Relatively few moved there from Kansas City as a direct result of racial change. Those moving decisions were often based on the quality of the schools, but also because the area was becoming known as a home to technology and communications companies by the 1970s. Even more companies moved to the area to take advantage of the educated workforce, which led to further economic and educational development.

“That’s my theory on how a lot of this sorting occurred,” Rury said. “I was surprised, though, at how stark the differences in educational attainment were. We did not expect them to be so pronounced.”

By 1980 high school students in Johnson County were three times more likely to have a college-educated parent than students in Jackson County, Missouri, schools.

The study focused on Kansas City school districts, but Rury said he has found similar patterns several other cities across the nation. In metro areas such as New York, St. Louis and Chicago, there are suburbs that feature more adults with college education and more affluent school districts.

“I do think you’d find similar patterns in cities across the country today,” Rury said. “People speculate about the differences between school districts, but I feel this is a very interesting way of examining them. It’s not unusual for highly educated people to become attracted to these suburban areas and their schools. They want to have everything for their kids, and they don’t always want to share their resources with everyone else.”

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