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Will a New Murphy’s Law Save Urban Education?
by Jack Cashill
verything about John Murphy is big, including his ideas. His plan to amend the Missouri Constitution to permit tax credits for donors to high schools and grade schools is, of course, a big one, and it could be the best thing to happen to Missouri education since Judge Russell Clark retired.
When Murphy enters a room, people tend to notice. At six-foot-six, and 240 or so, he could get your attention even if he did not have an accent straight outta Flatbush. That is Flatbush, as in Brooklyn, where Murphy was born and raised, the son of Irish immigrant autodidacts (the autodidacts among you will look that one up).
A commodity broker by trade, Murphy arrived in Kansas City 12 years ago. He immediately sensed that, unlike New York, this was a town you could get your hands around—at least if you didn’t mind getting them dirty in the process.
Murphy saw the dirty part up close. Soon after his arrival, he met one of his new neighbors, a “huge guy” named Benjamin Demps. For those lacking a scorecard, Demps was one of the 25 school superintendents the Kansas City Missouri School District has hired in the past 40 years. A sharecropper’s son, Demps thought he had seen all the hard knocks life could offer. Until, that is, he took on the district and all its pathologies.
Murphy recalls watching in shock as Demps seemed to dwindle away before his eyes like the Incredible Shrinking Man. “After the Kansas City school board tried to fire him and then hopelessly mired his job in lawsuits,” reported the Pitch at the time, “even man-of-steel Benjamin Demps Jr. broke down and wept while resigning.”
The Kansas City educational establishment could do that to a person, especially, as Murphy remembers ruefully, when “the lions of the community” stand back and watch.
Murphy’s son Jack was born soon after he got to town, and his daughter Mary Elizabeth arrived two years later. As the kids came of age, Murphy thought that he might take a shot at the establishment that had successfully whittled away Benjamin Demps.
Now living in Brookside, Murphy found it troubling that when his neighbors’ kids reached school age, the families migrated westward as predictably as the wildebeest on the Serengeti. “If you are not Catholic or can’t afford Pembroke,” says Murphy in a truism now at least 40 years valid, “you move to Kansas.”
Murphy, who lives just a few blocks from the emblematically screwed-up Southwest High, loves where he lives, “the only neighborhood of its kind in the country.” He would like to protect that neighborhood, which, given the state of public schooling, has emerged as one of the few Catholic/gay ghettoes anywhere in the world.
Among them, the five Catholic elementary schools in Murphy’s Southwest Kansas City enroll more than 2,200 students. By not sending these kids to public schools, their families save Missouri taxpayers roughly $31 million a year. And by remaining in Kansas City, they have kept the city from collapsing in on itself like a dwarf star.
Although the young president of the Kansas City School Board, Airick West, impresses him, Murphy believes the problems West faces in Kansas City are beyond Hercules’ solving. “Our public school system doesn’t work,” he says bluntly.
The district puts Murphy in mind of Weekend at Bernie’s, the film in which two adolescents spend the weekend propping up a dead man and passing him off as hung over. In Murphy’s analogy, the district is Bernie.
Not trusting vouchers—state money invites state meddling—Murphy settled on a tax credit system. Generous tax credits, he believes, will encourage both benefactors and parents to invest in schools. The tuition reduction will make a decent education much more accessible to families of limited means. This accessibility, in turn, will slow the out-migration to Kansas, and maybe even reverse it.
Providentially, a word that Murphy takes literally, he found a fellow on the other end of the state, Herman Kriegshauser of Chesterfield, who had precisely the same idea that he did about liberating the state’s schools.
Together, the pair plans to get a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot. Under the proposed amendment, individuals or corporate donors would receive a tax credit equal to 60 percent of their donation. This would be applied against their Missouri tax bill and would be in addition to the state and federal deduction on the remaining 40 percent of their donation.
As Murphy sees it, this amendment would dramatically lower the cost of attending parochial schools, and it would also encourage corporations to donate to any kind of school they like, including public schools.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City–Saint Joseph and other dioceses statewide have historically shied away from political efforts like this. But with dwindling resources, and an increasing commitment to central city schools, the diocese is looking for help anywhere it can find it.
Given the politics of the Statehouse, Murphy expects to see the authorities lay a healthy price tag on this amendment to discourage voter support. In 2010, when he and Kriegshauser first thought of getting it on the ballot, the number crunchers estimated a preposterous $5 billion cost to the state.
As Murphy sees it, the state is doing its math backwards. Today, it costs more than $14,000 to educate one student in a Kansas City public school. To educate a student in a parochial elementary school in Kansas City costs about a third of that, and yet nets each child an inarguably safer and smarter education.
The way Murphy figures, the state would save close to $10,000 for every student who switches to a parochial school, even if the whole cost of that move were paid for with tax credits. In Kansas City alone, this would amount to more than $200 million a year.
To qualify for the 2012 ballot, the initiative requires signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the total votes cast in the 2008 governor’s election from six of the state’s nine congressional districts. Murphy plans to get these signatures, roughly 150,000 in all, the old-fashioned way—through an army of honest-to-goodness volunteers. He’s ready to lead them, and he is not one to shy from a fight.
Indeed, he hopes to make enough of an impact to cause a redefinition of the proverbial Murphy’s Law: Everything that could go right did go right.
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