The Court Says Enough Is Enough

June 16, 1995

The Supreme Court's decision this week regarding federal court management of formerly segregated public school systems was narrowly arrived at (5-4) and focused just on the specific situation in Kansas City. Yet it was a loud and clear signal to all 500 school systems under federal court supervision (including the Prince George's County schools): Enough is enough. There are limits to what federal judges may do to overcome segregation.

If ever a judge went too far it was the district court judge in Kansas City. He took complete control of the city's school district. He ordered higher salaries for teachers and staff, new school buildings with elaborate facilities, expensive transportation programs -- all in the belief that "magnet schools" would attract white students back into the system from the suburbs, thus helping raise blacks' test scores.

Reasonable on the face of it when the judge demanded it a decade ago, perhaps. But things got out of hand. The price tag has risen to $190 million a year. The city's per-pupil costs became significantly higher than in any suburban Missouri system. Paying for it quickly exceeded the city's legal authority to tax, so the state was ordered to pick up the tab. White students did not return to the system; black students' test scores did not improve.

Technically, Chief Justice William Rehnquist ruled for the court only (1) that judges may not try to overcome the effects of segregation in a district which formally discriminated against blacks by involving nearby districts without such a history, and (2) that judges could not use student test scores to determine when they would give control back to school authorities.

But the message of the decision, following Supreme Court rulings in recent terms that desegregation orders by judges must always be temporary and that such orders can be suspended even if they fail to meet specific goals, is that all federal judges must start relaxing their control of the schools they now oversee.

Constitutional interpretation aside, to insist that "desegregativattractiveness," as the Kansas City judge put it, is the best way to help black public school students is racial elitism. As Justice Clarence Thomas said in his concurring opinion, "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that `D anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."

So far, $1.2 billion has been spent on making Kansas City's schools attractive to suburban whites. What would have happened if that money had been spent on tailoring the schools to the real needs of urban blacks who have no choice but to attend them?

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