The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday slammed the brakes on one of the most ambitious and expensive school desegregation efforts in the nation’s history.
Writing a new chapter in the 18-year-old Kansas City, Mo., school case, the justices rejected lower court orders that required funding of remedial educational programs on the basis of lagging student test scores, as well as salary hikes for teachers and other school employees.
The school district and the lower court were trying to attract non-minority suburban students to the Kansas City schools.
But the high court opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, reasoned that the trial court had overstepped its authority by ordering remedies that appeared to exceed the constitutional violations.
The Kansas City case underscores the slow pace, nationally, of school desegregation, which has proceeded city by city, district by district, since the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954.
Once a highly emotional issue in the United States, school desegregation fights have lost fire as city and suburban demographics have changed, and minorities have come to be the majority in many inner-city school districts.
The court’s decision was “not terribly surprising,” said Mark Tushnet, professor and associate dean for research and scholarship at Georgetown University Law Center. “But as a symbolic statement about desegregation it is important. It implies the nation has done enough on school desegregation.”
Not until 22 years after the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in the nation’s public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education, did Missouri finally rescind its constitutional provision requiring separate schools for blacks and whites.
Desegregation orders, much like death sentences, have routinely been appealed many times. The courthouse door seems always open for a new hearing in an old case.
Such was the outcome of Monday’s high court decision.
Justices ordered the trial court to re-examine the disputed remedies in the case and to return control of the schools to local and state authorities if they are in compliance with the Constitution.
The vote was 5-4, with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas signing Rehnquist’s opinion.
Confronted with unpopular busing orders in the early 1970s, the Supreme Court held that lower courts could not require the busing of students to and from the suburbs to correct segregation without evidence that suburban policies had actually caused the racial imbalance in the inner-city schools.
In the Kansas City case, the state of Missouri, which had asked the high court for relief, bore the brunt of the desegregation costs, now approaching $200 million a year, far beyond the school district’s budget and ability to tax.
In the last decade, an estimated $1.3 billion has been spent on rebuilding the district’s schools.
The court described Kansas City schools as, mostly, a system of magnet schools, in which every high school, middle school and half the elementary schools have special programs for students regardless of where they live.
Quoting the court’s previous decision in the case, Rehnquist noted that the massive expenditures had financed such improvements as air conditioning in every high school classroom, a 2,000-foot planetarium, greenhouses, a 25-acre farm, a model United Nations wired for language translation, broadcast-capable radio and television studios, an art gallery, swimming pools, and special rooms for an elementary school zoo project.
Since 1988 the school district, which is two-thirds AfricanAmerican, has received the state’s top rating. Test scores, however, have failed to rise dramatically.
In 1994, elementary students scored at or above national norms in language, science, social studies and math in all grades except the fourth. At the same time, middle and high school scores had improved but were still behind national norms.
Veteran Washington civil rights lawyer William Taylor, who had filed a brief on behalf of organizations such as the NAACP, the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Urban League, called the ruling “a setback to efforts to accelerate equal educational opportunity.”
But he added that it would probably have little impact on many school districts.
Theodore Shaw, the associate director and counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, agreed that the ruling will have “limited impact” because the Kansas City case and the court-ordered remedies, being so long and costly, are different from those in the typical desegregation case.
The dissenters, in an opinion by Justice David Souter, contended that the court had overstepped its authority by ruling on the validity of the magnet school program - an issue never raised in the state’s appeal.