Will the Eddy Manifesto Make a Difference?


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© Jack Cashill

Published in ingramsonline.com
July 2008 

After four years on the Kansas City SchoolBoard, Dr. Bill Eddy, the retired dean ofUMKC’s Bloch School of Business, has given up the ghost.

In an impassioned manifesto of sorts, he announced his intention not to run again, seeing “no hope” that the Board could solve the District’s “very serious problems.

”Such manifestos come and go, but what has given this one oomph is that it has been circulated among—and read by—Kansas City’s civic elite. The Helzberg Foundation has played a major role in making this happen. What also distinguishes the Eddy manifesto is its candor, a rare virtue in a city whose floors seem made of eggshells.

"What also distinguishes the Eddy manifesto is its candor, a rare virtue in a city whose floors seem made of eggshells."

Eddy does a solid job of laying out the district’s woes. Four years ago, he notes, the District had nearly 30,000 students. Within a few years, it will have 15,000. Since state funding tracks with student population, something will have to give—or someone, most likely the taxpayers.

Eddy shares some eye-popping examples of the District’s “broken-ness and dysfunction.” He tells, for instance, of students who earn all “A”s and “B”s but are unable to score high enough on their ACTs to get into college. Given that only 15 to 20 percent of students perform at or above standard grade level, this should surprise no one.

As Eddy implies, the planning meme seems to have been surgically removed from the District’s collective brain. Four high schools need principals for August, but as of late May,the District had not even posted the jobs. As of the same date, the District had yet to post teacher positions, let alone planetarium guides, for the fully un-staffed and absurdly ambitious new Southwest Early College Campus.

Administrative tardiness seems to be the rule, not the exception. The District routinely offers teacher contracts later than other districts, seemingly to assure that recruits with choices choose elsewhere. The District fills the void in part with “permanent subs,” some without college degrees.

The teachers whom the District does hire get to keep their jobs unless they do something so deeply creepy it makes the Star’sfront page—above the fold. Short of that, just about anything goes, and everyone stays. There is no systematic evaluation of teachers or principals, no clear performance standards, no rebukes for bad teaching, no rewards for good, and almost no way to boot the truly awful, especially if they are well wired.

Those at the power hub Downtown are held to less account than the teachers. Eddy cites a consultant’s report that details how top District brass pressure lesser staff to hire unqualified administrative wannabes to do God only knows what for whom or to whom.

“Good people leave in frustrationand disappointment, ”Eddy concludes, “and those who are left continue to perpetuate the dysfunction.”

All straightforward so far, but in defining the cause of the dysfunction Eddy goes a little wobbly and resorts to code. He describes a culture of low expectations in which patronage and cronyism—“protecting our own”—take priority over educating the kids. Although surely true, Eddy shies from revealing just who “our own” happento be.

Their identity, Eddy cautions, “is not discussed openly.” He gingerly alludes to them as “the elephant in the room” and can bring himself to no more precise identification than “certain segments of the community.” Eddy’s prudence is understandable. Less understandable is his attempt to devise a solution around the elephant.

That solution calls for deep-sixing the democratic process in choosing School Board members. Democracy, in Kansas City at least, is too messy for Eddy’s tastes. Those elected, he argues, are “too parochial, too entrenched, too linked” to the elephant. They labor under “no standards for competence or performance.” (Unlike, say, Congress?)

Eddy argues instead for an appointed executive—either a three-person board or a CEO—skilled in managing large complex organizations and “independent of local politics.”

Eddy does not specify who appoints the executive. Nor does he address a stickier issue still: If a federal judge wielding nearly unlimited power for 20 years couldn’t tame the elephant in the room, how is a mere CEO supposed to do so, especially if he has to work around Jumbo.

Unfortunately, by staying mum about the elephant’s identity, Eddy does a disservice to those he intends to protect, namely the black community of Kansas City. Although I am sure he does not intend this, the Eddy Manifesto leaves the impression that “our own” means “African American,” in part because Eddy implicates no one else in the District’s collapse.

In fact, the elephant in question is not the black community writ large, but a patronage cabal of insiders, largely black. Observers from outside Kansas City—like Joshua Dunn in his recent scholarly book on the District, Complex Justice—do not shy, as Eddy does, from stating the obvious.

The cabal does not operate in a vacuum. It derives its power from an informal, largely unspoken alliance with the media and the unions, both largely white.

On the national level, the teachers union and the urban patronage machines have a profound influence over the Democratic Party’s national agenda. For different reasons, each has avested interest in sustaining the status quo.

Political figures who want “change,” Democrat or Republican, do so at their own risk, and they can expect no help from the major media. As former Kansas state senator and “voucher queen” Kay O’Connor can attest, an office holder who suggests educational reform other than “additional funding” paints a bull’s-eye on her back.

In the suburban districts, the resulting inertia leads to a perpetual state of benign mediocrity. In the urban districts, it leads to the kind of sad, smoldering decay Eddy describes.

The media provide cover for the cabal as well as the unions. They do so by encouraging and amplifying politically useful charges of “racism,” the fear of which so chills interracial “dialogue” in Kansas City that such dialogue is not now worth the having. Eddy’s obvious reticence is testament to the same.

“Attempts at reform,” Eddy observes, “are met with indignation, loud protests, and threats. The broader community backs off. No concrete proposal for change gains traction.”

True enough, but if a man even of Eddy’s moxie refuses to name the protesters, fails to cite the teachers unions, hesitates to critique the media, and chooses not to connect the political dots that link all of these entities together, who is it that will grab the sword and slay the status quo? 

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