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School-Desegregation Plans at Issue in Missouri Races

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Federally mandated school-desegregation plans in Kansas City and St. Louis have become a key issue in Missouri political campaigns this fall.

Continuing public resentment of the costly plans has become particularly prominent in the race for attorney general, where the Republican candidate, David Steelman, is vowing to personally lead the fight to overturn the court orders.

The two cities' integration programs are a pressing concern for state policymakers because federal courts have held the state liable for some of the costs in light of past state segregation laws.

Kansas City's program involves an elaborate network of magnet schools designed to draw white students from the suburbs. The program, which includes a controversial "classical Greek'' high school, has a total cost estimated at $1.2 billion, of which the state has already contributed $270 million.

St. Louis has an extensive program of voluntary busing between city and suburbs that involves substantial state funding.

The desegregation plans and the financial drain they have placed on the state budget are also a major issue in the gubernatorial election, with the two candidates at odds over how to provide needed additional funding for the schools.

Observers said desegregation costs are achieving a particularly high profile both because many smaller districts are facing severe fiscal problems and because the state is currently facing finance-equity challenges fueled in part by underfunding of its main school-aid program.

Extravagant 'Palaces'

In his campaign, Mr. Steelman has focused on what he sees as the extravagance of the Kansas City magnet program, symbolized by the hiring of a teacher he describes as a "Russian fencing instructor.'' Yet, the candidate argues, the program is failing to bring about integration.

"They build these palaces to attract to students and they aren't,'' said Todd Graves, Mr. Steelman's campaign manager. "If desegregation's the goal, it's not accomplishing the goal.''

Mr. Steelman also cites figures showing that the percentages of minority students enrolled in Kansas City and St. Louis today are higher than they were in the early 1980's, when the desegregation orders were issued.

Mr. Steelman says that, if elected, he will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that the state has met its constitutional obligation to desegregate the Kansas City schools. He proposes to argue that the state satisfies the standards established this year by the Supreme Court in deciding whether the DeKalb County, Ga., school system had substantially met its integration goals. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

In the DeKalb decision, Mr. Steelman notes, the Court held that districts need not show full elimination of the vestiges of segregation in order for federal courts to begin to withdraw their supervision. That supports his contention, he argues, that the state's court-mandated desegregation plans were meant to be temporary remedies and have outlived their usefulness.

Mr. Steelman also proposes to "aggressively pursue'' efforts to end the St. Louis desegregation mandate.

Two-Pronged Approach

Meanwhile, Mr. Steelman's Democratic opponent, Sen. Jay Nixon, argues that court-ordered busing to achieve integration "is a failed social experiment'' that wastes millions of tax dollars.

But Mr. Nixon's public pronouncements do not specifically target the two urban districts, and he has put much less emphasis on the issue in his campaign.

Mr. Nixon promises as attorney general to adopt a "two-pronged approach'' to desegregation cases. He proposes to "work with the communities and the courts'' to end "day to day'' supervision of the schools by the judiciary.

Where consensus cannot be reached on how best to achieve racial balance, however, Mr. Nixon says he will "aggressively'' litigate local desegregation cases.

"The current stalemate is bankrupting the system and depriving an entire generation of children the opportunity to get the education they deserve,'' he argues.

An Overshadowing Issue

The desegregation question is also expected to eclipse many other issues in the gubernatorial race, which pits the current Republican attorney general, William L. Webster, against Lieut. Gov. Mel Carnahan.

In a recent editorial, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch argued that the desegregation issue "is so volatile and so hot that it could overshadow'' even such questions as the state's lagging economy and access to abortion.

Mr. Carnahan has proposed what he has described as a "modest tax increase,'' of roughly $200 million, to head off an educational "emergency'' brought on by the state's fiscal crisis and aggravated by the desegregation costs.

Mr. Webster has proposed issuing long-term tax-exempt bonds to cover the capital costs of building facilities to meet the desegregation orders.

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