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Mo. Seeks To End Court Oversight of K.C. Desegregation Plan

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As part of an accelerating campaign to extract itself from desegregation plans that have cost the state more than $3 billion, Missouri has asked a federal judge to end court supervision of the Kansas City schools.

"The time has come for Kansas City to resume control of its public schools," state Attorney General Jay Nixon said late last month in asking the court to declare the school system unitary, or free from the effects of racial segregation.

He pointed out that the state has spent $1.1 billion on court-ordered remedies in Kansas City in the past decade. "These cases are not designed to permanently replace local control and support of the schools," Mr. Nixon added.

His move in Kansas City parallels a bid for unitary status in St. Louis, where the state has also spent more than $1 billion on court-ordered desegregation efforts. Days before the state filed the Kansas City motion, a judge in the St. Louis case named a former university president to negotiate a settlement.

Because of their scope and expense, Missouri's desegregation plans have attracted national attention. Kansas City's magnet school system is arguably the nation's most ambitious, while the student-transfer arrangement between St. Louis and its suburbs dwarfs similar programs elsewhere.

Both programs rely heavily on court-ordered state aid to stay afloat, making them politically unpopular outside the cities. Missouri has spent more than $3 billion on the two plans since the early 1980s, a statistic the state's lawyers are fond of citing.

"Missouri has spent more for desegregation than all other states combined, except for California," said John R. Munich, the state's chief desegregation lawyer.

The state's quest to rid itself of that expense gained momentum last June, with a favorable decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled that a lower-court judge in the Kansas City case overstepped his authority by requiring a series of costly measures designed to attract white suburban students to the city's schools. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

In response to that ruling in Missouri v. Jenkins, Kansas City halted most busing of suburban children who attend magnet schools in the city, and the state cut its annual desegregation subsidy to the district from about $190 million to $110 million.

Now, as the 37,000-student district prepares to seek court approval of a revised and less costly desegregation plan, the state and district are battling over how to apply the high court ruling.

Within the district, there is considerable debate and uncertainty over how to adjust to the ruling--and to the prospect of an end to the flow of state desegregation money. Last week, in the wake of elections that changed the composition of the city's school board, its members voted to revise substantially a five-year plan it had submitted to the court on March 29.

Controversial Appointment

In St. Louis, meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge George Gunn recently appointed William Danforth, the former chancellor of Washington University there, to broker an out-of-court settlement.

The state is eager to end its subsidies of city magnet schools that now attract about 1,400 suburban children, as well as a transfer program in which 13,000 inner-city black students are bused to suburban schools. Those subsidies exceeded $150 million this year.

The 40,000-student district and the plaintiffs, represented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, want to preserve the programs and the subsidies. The plaintiffs' lawyers hailed Mr. Danforth's appointment.

But because of his association with a business group that has endorsed the transfer program, Attorney General Nixon has asked the judge to limit Mr. Danforth's role and set a May 31 deadline for concluding the negotiations.

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