Kansas City, Kansas—In Rachael McIlvaine’s eighth-grade science class at West Middle School here, a chatty but focused group of three takes turns closing their eyes, dipping a plastic spoon into a foil roasting pan, and fishing for M&M’s, trying to capture as much candy as they can.
The idea is to show how homes use clean water and replace it with pollution; for every regular M&M removed, students replace it with a peanut M&M, which they track on a chart showing what percentage of the “water” remains clean.
The pollution analogy works well: The M&M’s have seen better days. Many of them are cracked or chipped, the result of having been reused. “They’re kind of nasty,” remarks one student.
“I reuse the M&M’s because a bag of M&M’s is $4 or $5 a piece and 100 of those per group would add up over time as far as cost,” McIlvaine says.
Teachers in financially strapped urban districts are used to saving money where they can. In that respect, Kansas City, where in 2014 nearly 90 percent of the students were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, is not unusual. But since 2009, according to David Smith, the district’s chief of communications and government relations, the district has had to cut more than $50 million from its already tight budget because of state cutbacks, threatening progress in a district that had seen some significant and surprising gains for its students.
Kansas’ governor and Legislature are also making national headlines for not equalizing education funding between low-income and wealthier districts. The state Supreme Court has warned that it could prevent schools from opening in the fall if the state refuses to comply with its most recent order to increase funding.
But whether or not the school district gets the cash, it says it is going forward with an ambitious plan to add a requirement that, to get their diplomas, high schoolers must score a 21 on the ACT, complete a year of college or earn a technical certificate.
Kansas City’s persistence in the face of the funding shortfalls raises questions reformers across the nation have battled over for decades: Can districts raise expectations and improve achievement on a shoestring? How little money is too little for schools to function well, and what could be achieved with more? Whether Kansas City maintains its optimism or loses ground as the belt tightens could begin to suggest answers.
“The passion around doing the work is still present,” said Superintendent Cynthia Lane. “But it’s hard to maintain morale and to keep folks moving in the very aggressive direction that we’ve set for ourselves. It’s hard to ask them to stretch to do more when they’re already really doing everything that’s humanly possible.”