Court To Review Kansas City Case For a Third Time

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to take its third look at the Kansas City, Mo., school-desegregation case, which launched one of the most sweeping and expensive remedial plans ever ordered by the federal courts.

The High Court on Sept. 26 accepted an appeal by the state of Missouri, which has been forced to bear much of the cost of Kansas City's $1.3 billion desegregation plan because of the state's legacy of legally mandated segregation.

In its appeal in Missouri v. Jenkins (Case No. 93-1823), the state asks the Court to review an order that student achievement in the district, as measured on standardized tests, improve before the state is released from its obligation to pay for desegregation programs.

The state argues that it was improper for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis to set an "outcome-based standard" as a prerequisite to ruling that the district has achieved unitary status, or eliminated the vestiges of prior segregation.

The "requirement of improved student achievement greatly exceeds the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal educational opportunity," the state argues in its brief. "If permitted to stand, such a standard would mark a radical departure from this Court's established requirement that only purposeful discrimination is remediable under the 14th Amendment."

In its briefs opposing the appeal, the Kansas City district and the private plaintiffs in the case argue that the Eighth Circuit panel did not really establish a new standard.

"A fairer reading of the Eighth Circuit's statement ... is a reaffirmation of the well-settled principle that effectiveness in eliminating vestiges of discrimination is the standard to be employed in assessing a school-desegregation remedy," the district's brief says.

The Supreme Court jumped the gun last week on the Oct. 3 opening of its new term by granting review of the Kansas City case and seven other appeals. The Missouri case will likely be argued in January.

In addition to the achievement-standard issue, the state's appeal also questions whether lower federal courts exceeded their authority by granting salary increases to almost all district employees as part of the desegregation effort. Missouri argues that salary increases for non-instructional personnel are not sufficiently related to the desegregation remedy.

A Landmark Decision

This will mark the third time the Supreme Court has considered the Kansas City case. In 1989, the Court used the case to decide a relatively minor issue regarding attorneys' fees in civil-rights litigation.

In its landmark 1990 decision in the case, the High Court ruled 5 to 4 that federal judges may order a school district to raise taxes to finance a desegregation plan.

It held unanimously that U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark exceeded his authority by ordering a tax hike on his own. But the narrow majority agreed he could suspend state laws and order local governments to raise taxes to correct constitutional violations. (See Education Week, April 25, 1990.)

Since that time, Missouri has appealed several other issues from the case to the Supreme Court, each time requesting that the Justices consider the sweeping scope of the plan. The High Court had rejected those appeals until last week.

The Kansas City desegregation plan includes efforts to make each of the district's high schools a magnet school and to set up a variety of other special programs.

However, a report released earlier this year by the Harvard Project on School Desegregation said that the huge sum spent in Kansas City has resulted in only modest academic and integration gains.

"This is the most far-reaching example of a certain kind of school-desegregation case," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University and a leading desegregation expert. "I think you can infer that [the Justices] want to look at this case and see where it is going."

"A vast amount of money has been spent in Kansas City with relatively modest results," added Mr. Orfield, who was once a witness for the plaintiffs in the case. "Should there be no standard for outcomes?"

Appeals Court Divided

Missouri appealed a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit court affirming Judge Clark's orders approving the salary increase and educational-improvement efforts.

In 1992, the state had sought a partial end to the desegregation remedy, arguing that the opportunities available in the Kansas City schools exceeded those in suburban districts. Judge Clark rejected the state's arguments and ordered increased funding.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit panel unanimously affirmed the judge, and for the first time set a standard requiring that the state prove that Kansas City's students reach some level of improvement in achievement before it would be granted a ruling on unitary status.

"The success of quality of education programs must be measured by their effects on the students," said the panel opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge John R. Gibson.

As for the salary hikes, the panel said Judge Clark did not abuse his discretion in ordering them.

The state sought a rehearing before the full Eighth Circuit Court, which rejected the request by a vote of 6 to 5, with the dissenting judges criticizing the "achievement standard." The state then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Vol. 14, Issue 05

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