Can money buy equality in education?

January 12, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- If spending a bundle of money would make for an exemplary school system, the Kansas City district should be among the nation's best.

Since 1986, the state of Missouri has spent $1.3 billion to upgrade the Kansas City schools. Thanks to this extraordinary infusion of state aid, the city's schools spend three times more per student than the state average.

Nonetheless, a federal judge who ordered the extra spending ruled the 17-year-old desegregation program is not yet complete because test scores of city students remain below the "national norms."

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Kansas City case seeking to settle one of the last remaining questions in desegregation law.

In two recent rulings, the high court has said that a court-ordered school desegregation program should end once spending has been equalized, facilities desegregated and the "vestiges of past discrimination eliminated to the extent possible."

But are below-average test scores in a big-city school district a "vestige of past discrimination" that must be eliminated?

No, said state lawyers, arguing that they should not be held responsible for how students perform in class.

Missouri's chief counsel, John R. Munich, said the state should be required to "allocate the resources" to pay for the required programs, but it cannot guarantee that students will learn.

"Is student achievement irrelevant?" asked an incredulous Justice David H. Souter. Joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, the two jurists suggested that changes in test scores are a key indicator of whether the program has succeeded.

Lawyers representing the black students and the Clinton administration agreed the desegregation program should continue until test scores rise.

Black students who have "suffered the terrible deprivation of segregation" should not be cut off from extra state support, Deputy Solicitor General Paul Bender told the court.

But a skeptical Justice Antonin Scalia asked how the state can be held responsible for raising test scores to above the national norms.

"Half the country is below the national norms," he said.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy appeared to agree. "I see no end to this," he said.

The Kansas City case has been closely watched for years because it offers the most striking example of a judge seeking to remake a school system in an effort to remedy past segregation.

Beginning in 1977, Judge Russell G. Clark ordered the busing of 16,000 students to integrate the schools.

But when that spurred "white flight" to the suburbs, Judge Clark then turned to upgrading the city schools.

The state of Missouri was held jointly liable for failing to desegregate the school system, and was required to pay for many of the educational improvements.

The judge ordered the building of a $32-million high school, created a series of magnet schools and reduced the size of the classes.

But his far-reaching rulings appear to have irritated several of the Supreme Court justices.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said she was "quite amazed" that the judge had ordered salary increases for janitors and other non-instructional employees, suggesting it was "an abuse of [judicial] discretion."

Earlier, the judge had ordered a property tax increase in Kansas City to help pay for school improvements.

In 1990, the Supreme Court upheld that decision on a 5-4 vote. Since then, three liberal justices have retired, leading to speculation that a new majority is likely to rein in Judge Clark.

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