Judicial intervention in schools reviewed

January 12, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Four decades after ordering an end to racial segregation of public schools, the Supreme Court reached one of the last unsettled issues yesterday. It took up the question of whether students must actually do better in school before desegregation can be considered successful.

The answer will affect school desegregation in Prince George's County, and in scores of cities and counties across the nation.

At a hearing yesterday on a Kansas City, Mo., case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested that courts perhaps should be free to ask if students can read as a test of "whether desegregation works."

A majority of the court did not appear ready to rule out all use of student achievement to measure desegregation success. A federal judge in Kansas City has said that achievement might be a factor in deciding when a system is free of racial bias.

But some justices seemed skeptical of keeping schools under prolonged court supervision. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said ruefully: "I just don't see an end to this."

A majority of the court has hinted that the justices may be growing impatient with the refusal of federal judges to release school districts from desegregation orders, some of which require cross-town busing.

But the court has not laid down any test of when a school system can be counted as fully desegregated and, thus, be freed of court orders. It has said that districts may come out from court orders piecemeal, as parts of their operations reach desegregation.

Many formerly segregated school districts remain under such orders -- including the Topeka, Kan., school district that figured in the initial 1954 decision.

In Prince George's County, officials have fashioned a proposal to get free of a court order that has been in effect for 22 years and to return to a neighborhood school plan. But the proposal has not been approved by the federal court overseeing the county's desegregation.

Under the Prince George's plan still in effect, tens of thousands of students are bused across the county to maintain desegregation of individual schools. The faculty of each school must be close to the racial ratio of each school's student body.

"Prince George's is most definitely a case that could be affected by the Kansas City decision," said William L. Taylor, a Washington civil rights lawyer involved in that case.

He estimated that several hundred school districts are still under court order.

Yesterday's hearing focused on a 17-year-old desegregation case that has brought court-ordered plans described by a lawyer for Missouri as "a remedy of unprecedented breadth and unparalleled expense." The Kansas City desegregation plan has cost about $1.3 billion.

The Missouri lawyer, Assistant State Attorney General John R. Munich, urged the court to rule that public school systems should not have to show that their desegregation plans raised test scores or other measures of achievement of all students, black and white, so long as the school systems provided equal facilities and opportunities to all students. Lower-court judges have noted that Kansas City students' scores fall below national norms.

Mr. Munich said the federal judge in Kansas City got off on a wrong path years ago by ordering the city's schools to match suburban schools in student progress. He also objected to an order requiring salary increases for nearly everyone on the staff, including janitors and others not involved in teaching.

Although some justices in the past have expressed doubts about the scope of the Kansas City remedies, the court has not ruled on their legality.

Answering questions from Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Missouri lawyer argued that measuring student achievement tells nothing about whether desegregation goals have been met. Justice Breyer challenged that point, and Justice Souter suggested that student expectations of low achievement may be passed from one school generation to the next, indicating that the effects of past bias continue.

Justice Antonin Scalia was the only member of the court to offer strong support for Missouri's challenge on the student achievement issue. He suggested that if all school facilities and opportunities were equally available, "it is not possible" to blame low student test scores on past discrimination.

A civil rights lawyer for black students and parents in Kansas City, Theodore M. Shaw, told Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that students in the city would not have to achieve specific test-score improvements to determine whether the effects of past bias had been overcome, but that their academic progress should be considered a significant factor.

The court's ruling in the case is expected by early summer.

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