A costly quest for Racial Balance
Kansas City's attempt to integrate schools poses test for court and urban education
THE nation's most ambitious - and most expensive - court-ordered school desegregation plan goes on trial before the United States Supreme Court tomorrow.Skip to next paragraph
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Forty years after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional, Missouri v. Jenkins may finally determine what it takes to succeed in removing the ``vestiges of segregation.'' The high court's ruling, expected by July, could affect dozens of pending cases across the country in which districts are under court order to adjust the racial balance of schools.
``This case could help define the end game for desegregation cases nationwide by laying out the limits the states or other violators are required to go through to get to the finish line,'' Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon says.
The Clinton administration, seizing its first chance to take a stand on a Supreme Court desegregation case, is arguing for continued court supervision in Kansas City, Mo. The position reverses 12 years of efforts to curtail judicial oversight of schools under former Presidents Reagan and Bush. The case also represents the first time test scores, not just integrating classrooms, have been raised in a desegregation action.
At the center of the legal maneuvering is the Kansas City Missouri School District, a 72-school system undergoing perhaps the biggest experiment in urban education today. In the past decade, the state of Missouri and Kansas City have pumped $1.3 billion into the district to meet a federal court mandate to integrate its largely black inner-city schools.
Since the effort began, dozens of decrepit schools in gang-ridden neighborhoods have been transformed into suburban-type facilities, some complete with swimming pools and enough computers to run a Pentagon war room. There are now 56 magnet schools designed to attract a diversity of students, with special themes from intensive language instruction to a focus on technology or environmental science.
The effort has yielded some results. It has helped stem white flight and attract some middle-class blacks to the public schools. Ninette Harrison and her family are one example. Before the district started its integration experiment, Mrs. Harrison never considered the local schools an option. Her daughter graduated from parochial school in the 1980s.
``If I had put her in public school, I would have lost my child,'' Harrison says. ``I could not have breathed easy having her in those schools at that time.''
But the Kansas City schools have come far enough that Harrison's 13-year-old son Kevin moved from parochial school to a French-language magnet school in second grade. ``The choices that they offered were different from anything that anybody else had,'' Harrison says of public schools.
But the plan has not yet transformed the system. Test scores show little improvement, and the school district is actually less integrated now than before the magnet-school program began in the mid-1980s.
Less than 1,500 white suburban students have voluntarily transferred to the Kansas City schools - with an enrollment of 37,000 - since the program began.
School district officials argue that progress is being made, but they need more time. Continuing the plan, though, is expensive, which is where the current Sup-reme Court case comes in. The state of Missouri has shouldered most of the desegregation costs - $838 million so far. In 1992, the state asked for partial relief from the court mandate.
But District Court Judge Russell Clark, who originally ordered Kansas City to improve its schools, refused. So, later, did the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The lower courts' opinions suggested that the remedy should remain in place until student achievement in the district improves.
Mr. Nixon, who appealed the case to the Supreme Court, argues that requiring im-proved test scores goes beyond the scope of desegregation. ``The only way you could require test scores is if you were going to get into every house, every societal problem, ...'' he says. ``That's just not what desegregation remedies were designed for, and it's not what the constitutional law requires. We are required to provide an equality of opportunity for education, not guarantee an output.''