In 2003, a debate team from Central High School finished tenth in the nation – an unlikely accomplishment, considering the school had been declared “academically deficient” by the state of Missouri a year earlier.
Five years later, debaters from Central won the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues’ national championship.
Central has won the city championship more times than any other school, even Lincoln College Prep, a school students have to score high on tests to get into.
And dozens and dozens of Central debaters have gone on to college, many of them with full-ride scholarships, while more than half of their classmates have wound up being drop outs.
Now the Central High debate program is a thing of the past.
In fact, debate is dead all but one of the Kansas City School District’s high schools.
Who’s to blame?
Kansas City’s business leadership and the Kansas City Star.
During the most recent school board elections, the city’s civic heavy hitters and the daily paper, who I’ll refer to hence forward as the White Power Structure, came out strong for a slate of candidates who ran on a platform of unwavering support for the newly appointed superintendent, John Covington.
These candidates vilified several of the board’s black members, accused them of micromanaging and patronage, and hailed Covington as some sort of educational knight on a white horse.
It’s turned out, however, that Covington isn’t much different from the parade of superintendents who’ve preceded him: power hungry, arrogant, inflexible.
Covington unilaterally killed debate in Kansas City when he canceled all district contracts and then refused to renew the district’s agreement with DEBATE Kansas City, a two-man operation that offices out of UMKC.
The contract in question was a pittance, a mere $70,000 a year. Yet it was enough to ensure a program that included training and support for coaches at the school, supplies for students, a yearlong series of tournaments (including the city championships), trips to out of town tournaments and scholarships for debate camps.
DEBATE Kansas City offered its services for free for the better part of a year after the contract was canceled. And its board members and supporters tried to impress upon district officials that without DEBATE Kansas City’s program, debate would disappear from the schools.
And that’s exactly what has happened.
So why is this the White Power Structure’s fault, and not simply Covington’s?
Because the White Power Structure’s approach to reform in the district will always result in leaders like Covington.
Kansas City’s White Power Structure employs a classic white-liberal strategy when it comes to the district, which is an arms-length tack, an “I gave at the office” policy.
In other words, the method is to declare a nebulous ideal and then to push for the hiring of someone who can come in and take care of the problem so that the White Power Structure’s movers and shakers can wash their hands of it.
For decades upon decades, the Star and the civic community have pushed for a super superintendent who can come in and save the district. And it’s failed every time because the district can’t be saved by one person, no matter how much success they might’ve had somewhere else.
That’s because the district will always be a reflection of our community, a casualty of our dividedness and inequality, always languishing from a lack of community vision and investment.
The arms-length approach only serves to worsen the problem. It puts too much of the responsibility on one person, usually a person who’s brought in from somewhere else, and that person doesn’t know what the city wants and needs because the White Power Structure has taken an arms-length approach.
It’s like they’ve said, “Here’s our fucked-up district. Fix it.”
That does two things.
One, it attracts a certain kind of applicant to the job, and it’s the kind who’s likely to kill a really good program and then stand behind his choice out of stubbornness, even if it’s a bad idea.
Two, it doesn’t establish a vision for the district, one that has specifics, such as “We want debate,” and is also something a broad cross-section of the city can get behind and support until the vision becomes reality.
And it’s sad, because the death of debate is just one less opportunity for the kids in this city, and it was really good one, a program that gave students many of the skills they’ll need to thrive in society.