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.

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.''

The school district, now heavily dependent on state funds, opposes the state's plea for relief from the court mandate. ``If the state had been paying their fair share over the last 30 years as the school district deteriorated, they wouldn't have to pay as much now,'' says Walter Marks, superintendent of the Kansas City schools.

Mr. Marks admits test scores at middle and high school levels have not shown ``the progress that you would expect with the expenditures that have been made.'' But improvements at the elementary level have been noted, he says.

Marks pleads for more time. ``Everybody has expected too much, too soon,'' he says. ``We have only implemented the final pieces of this program in the last two years. I don't know why anybody would have expected progress overnight.''

The superintendent has been criticized for spending extravagantly and failing to be accountable for results. ``The money hasn't been targeted very well, and it hasn't been monitored adequately,'' says Gary Orfield, a professor of education at Harvard University.

It's reasonable to expect ``positive movement'' within three or four years of establishing a desegregation plan, Professor Orfield says. The Kansas City case proves it is difficult to integrate urban schools by throwing money at the problem, Orfield adds.

``The focus was more on desegregation than it was on educational results. Magnet schools were not set up as part of a carefully articulated educational strategy; they were set up as a strategy to change the image of the schools and attract people in who weren't coming before.''

Even some black parents - the source of the original desegregation suit - are now calling for a shift in focus, given the limited results from maximum investment. They are frustrated with the emphasis on attracting whites and angered when black students are turned away from a magnet school in their neighborhood while whites are ushered in from the suburbs. The district even pays taxi fare for students from far-flung suburbs.

``It's kind of hard to take when you see so much emphasis on attracting majority students,'' says former school-board member Alexander Ellison. ``Most of those white parents who had children of school age left on their own.''

Some parents argue for more attention to academics. ``At some point we need to concentrate on teaching techniques and screen the good teachers from the bad,'' Harrison says.

Marks is accustomed to being lambasted from both sides. He is under court order to strive for racial balance and under pressure to improve student performance. ``You can't just pick out one little piece of it that you want to deal with,'' he says.

Marks knows the stakes are high. ``If you can't show in Kansas City by the year 2000 that new school buildings, the best facilities, new teaching materials, and well-paid teachers impact in a positive way, I think urban education will really be on trial. And probably rightly so,'' he says.

But the dilemma of how to integrate schools, improve academic standards and keep budgets in balance lingers. Orfield faults the Kansas City plan for requiring a higher level of expenditure than the district can sustain. Without state funding, the district wouldn't be able to maintain the facilities now in place. As Marks puts it: ``You'd have taxes that would be so high everybody would leave the city.''

Yet other school districts across the state squawk that they are suffering funding losses because of the money being funneled to Kansas City. ``The day may come when Kansas City has to assume the same responsibility for its schools as the other 529 school districts in the state assume for theirs,'' Nixon says.

Caught in the middle are parents, such as Ninette Harrison, who bravely sent their children into the city's revitalized schools. They are left wondering if the money will continue to flow long enough for their sons and daughters to graduate. ``It would be real bad for the kids to go back to where we were,'' she says. ``I hope they don't just throw the whole thing out.''

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