ST. LOUIS — EVERY school morning, the nation's largest two-way busing plan grinds into gear here in St. Louis. Yellow buses crisscross highways and rumble down suburban lanes shuttling 12,700 city students to outlying county schools and carrying about 1,400 suburbanites into city magnet schools.
Since the voluntary program began as part of a court-approved settlement in the early '80s, the number of black St. Louis students attending integrated schools has risen dramatically - from 18 percent to 59 percent.
But the state of Missouri, which pays the hefty bill for all this, is fighting to end the desegregation program. A federal court hearing on the matter is scheduled to take place in St. Louis today, providing another opportunity to outline the endgame for desegregation efforts nationwide.
Across the country, states and school districts are pushing for an end to court-ordered desegregation programs, arguing they have achieved their goal. Several recent Supreme Court decisions have encouraged a speedy return to local control of public schools whenever possible.
Bolstered by last year's US Supreme Court finding that Kansas City's desegregation plan had gone too far, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is asking that the state - after spending $1.3 billion on desegregation in St. Louis - be released from further financial obligations here.
"It's disturbing and unrealistic to think that these programs are going to continue forever," Mr. Nixon says.
Both the state and the St. Louis School District are interested in restoring local control of the city's schools. But working out the financial and logistical details has turned into a nasty legal battle.
The city school system and the interdistrict transfer program depend heavily on the nearly $100 million in state funds that flow in annually.
St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. argues that those funds could be better used to improve city schools and return to a system of neighborhood schools. Like many other black leaders nationwide, Mr. Bosley has become less concerned about the racial makeup of the city's schools than the quality of education provided and the overall health of the city.
No place like home
When he attended the St. Louis public schools, Bosley walked to school and vouches for the importance of going to school in your own neighborhood.
"Every time a child gets on one of those buses, he becomes disconnected with what's going on in his own community," the mayor says.
Bosley views the future of his city as inextricably tied to the quality of the schools. "It's the old principle, if you build something good, people will come," he says.
Although he would like to end the interdistrict transfer plan, Bosley does not want to lose state funding. Under the current desegregation plan, the state covers all transportation costs, compensates the receiving district for transfer students, and allows sending districts to keep half of a transfer student's state aid.
The program has turned into a financial boon for the 17 suburban districts that participate. State funds from the transfer program account for more than 10 percent of many districts' education budgets.
Ending the program would mean teacher layoffs and empty classrooms, says John Oldani, superintendent of the suburban Rockwood School District. Without transfer students, his district would lose about $10 million a year.
Meanwhile, the city would be hit with a tidal wave of students returning to all-black schools.
"If the kids come back, we have to accept them no matter what," says the Rev. Earl Nance, president of the St. Louis School Board. "The state could end up bankrupting our system." Accommodating the returning students would require 28 new schools and cost about $300 million, city officials estimate.
Attorney General Nixon has proposed a three-year phase out of the transfer program and has offered the city 25 percent of the state's savings for three years to help build and renovate schools.
While he wants an immediate halt to additional transfer students, Nixon proposes letting current transfer students finish at the schools they now attend.
The St. Louis School Board and the suburban districts prefer that all current transfer students be allowed to graduate from their current school system. "I don't think the attorney general is being sensitive to the kids and their families," says Don Senti, superintendent of the suburban Clayton School District.
Supporters of the transfer plan argue that it has cut the educational achievement gap between white and black students in half and improved graduation rates. Nearly 50 percent of students transferring into the suburban schools graduated within four years, research shows. St. Louis high schools have a graduation rate of less than 28 percent.
Parents are split on the future of the interdistrict transfer program. Betsy Foy, a white, suburban parent whose three children attend city magnet schools, says it's the best thing that ever happened to her kids. "Because of having attended city schools with black students, they know no color," she says.
But Joe Scoggins, a black city resident whose two children attend city magnet schools, sees more and more black parents who are unwilling to send their children to suburban schools. "There's something wrong with the idea that it's good for a black child to go to a white school," he says.
Meanwhile, the original plaintiffs in the long-running desegregation case are vowing to fight the state's effort to end desegregation in St. Louis. They point out that this case never went to trial but was settled out of court.
If the state insists on pushing for an end to the program, the plaintiffs may ask to reopen the settlement and request a trial, says William Taylor, an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the original plaintiffs in the case. "We may be back in court all over again," he says.