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Kansas City is home to the best barbeque in the world and some of the worst schools in the country. In one sector, black and white, rich and poor come together to enjoy a high-quality, low-cost product. In the other, almost exclusively people of color attend unaccredited schools at an enormous cost to taxpayers.
Kansas City owes its barbeque crown to a man by the name of Henry Perry, who opened his first barbeque stand in 1907. When he became successful enough, he started his own restaurant in the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood whose jazz scene birthed the great Charlie Parker. Though located in an African-American neighborhood, the story goes that limousines would pull up and drop off the city’s wealthy citizens to wait in line with the day laborers, all getting their smoked meat between slices of white bread wrapped in newspaper. “Desegregation by Deliciousness,” a documentary once called it.
Barbeque, quite simply, is food for poor people. After butchers remove the steaks from the core of the cow, the chuck from right behind the head, and the round from the beast’s rear end, the meat that’s left over is tough and has to be cooked in a way that softens it up. Pitmasters take those cheap cuts and cook them low and slow for hours and hours, and smother them in sauces rich in molasses, paprika, and proprietary blends of spices. The result is sweet and savory, tender and rich.
Eventually, Perry’s operation was bought by Arthur Bryant, whose eponymous restaurant was once called “quite possibly the best restaurant in the world” by noted journalist Calvin Trillin. Still located in the 18th and Vine neighborhood, a lunch- or dinner-time trip to the restaurant will always elicit a broad cross section of the city. Rich and poor, young and old, black and white, all wait in line for up to an hour to shout to a pitmaster through cloudy, bulletproof glass what type of meat they want.
Limousines would pull up and drop off the city’s wealthy citizens to wait in line with the day laborers, all getting their smoked meat between slices of white bread wrapped in newspaper.
What makes barbeque the great egalitarian experience that it is today? Two things: quality and availability. It is inexpensive and thus available to almost anyone in the city. At the same time it is the most delicious thing you’ll ever eat. There is robust competition between the different providers, as Arthur Bryant’s is constantly kept on its toes by Gates and Sons, LC’s, Oklahoma Joe’s, Jack Stack, and loyal communities of patrons that keep coming back meal after meal.
The story of Kansas City schools is, sadly, much different.i
The entire city suffered terribly from white flight in the 1960s. Kansas City became a black-majority city in 1969, which not so coincidentally was the last time the voters of the city approved a tax increase for school funding until courts mandated it in the 1980s. Year by year, neglect by the city’s body politic led to decreasing quality in the schools. It was so bad that Russell Clark, the judge who ruled on the desegregation case that reorganized the district, remarked that he had never seen a prison as awful as the Kansas City public schools.
As a result, Judge Clark ordered in 1986 that Kansas City get the equivalent of a blank check to turn its schools around. Over the next decade, Kansas City spent over $2 billion renovating schools and opening new ones. Facilities included an Olympic-sized swimming pool at Central High with an underwater viewing room, a planetarium at Southwest High, an arboretum, a zoo, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a full-sized mock courtroom with a jury deliberation room, and facilities for a model United Nations that possessed the ability to simultaneously translate speeches. The budget for the school district swelled from $125 million in 1985 to $432 million in 1992. The central office employed 600 people to manage 36,000 students, three to five times what comparable districts did. The district raised everyone’s salaries by 40 percent. But the remaining white students in the area did not flock to these schools. The schools have been hemorrhaging students ever since.
At its peak, the Kansas City school district was designed to accommodate 54,000 students. This year, Kansas City public schools enrolled less than 17,000.
Well, unlike Kansas City’s barbeque restaurants, Kansas City schools failed to focus on their core product, and spent the lion’s share of their time and resources on the bells and whistles that look great, but don’t keep folks coming back. Like the Biblical provision to not put new wine in old wine skins, the district struggled to improve the human capital of its teachers and principals. It simply gave more resources and higher salaries to the same folks that couldn’t get the job done in the first place, and not surprisingly, got similar results.
The district simply gave more resources and higher salaries to the same folks that couldn’t get the job done in the first place, and not surprisingly, got similar results.
By the time the “throw money at the problem” solution was found to be a failure, the state legislature and outstate residents were so fed up with paying for the schools that they created an open season for everyone and their brother to come in and start charter schools with little quality control. The district has, by my count, had 11 superintendents since the 1987 court ruling.
Bottom line, the court-ordered desegregation ruling did not improve the quality of education in Kansas City, nor did it do anything to desegregate schools.
So what can we do? We can learn lessons from Kansas City’s pitmasters. First and foremost, they focus religiously on what they do best, smoking meat and making sauce. The facilities aren’t that great (Oklahoma Joe’s, which Anthony Bourdain named as one of the 13 restaurants in the world to eat in before you die, is famously located in a gas station), takeout orders often come wrapped in paper, usually with simple white bread, and there’s a healthy chance you’ll get yelled at if you order incorrectly. But what they do, and what everyone comes for, they do incredibly well.
Schools are similar: for too long, we’ve focused on the bells and whistles, the cutting-edge facilities, and sparkling new technology. What we should focus on is the core function, teaching and learning, and everything that can be done to improve it.
I wish to be clear; I am not trying to equate teaching students with smoking a rack of ribs. Education, obviously, is a complex and multifaceted enterprise with interplay between families, teachers, and students. What I am saying is that many of the problems that we see in our communities, like poverty and segregation, are not intractable. The story of barbeque in Kansas City is the story of brilliant, creative, hard-working entrepreneurs that changed the social fabric of their communities. Our nation’s inner cities are filled with such people, and we need to help them save our schools.
As a proud son of Kansas City, I evangelize our barbeque everywhere I go. One day, Lord willing, I’ll be able to do the same about our schools.
Michael McShane is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
i. The facts and tales from Kansas City are drawn from Paul Ciotti’s seminal history of the Kansas City School System, Money and School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment.
Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group
What schools can learn from barbeque restaurants.
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