Court Hears Arguments In K.C. Case

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Several Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court asked last week whether federal-court supervision of the Kansas City, Mo., school district has gone too far as the Court heard oral arguments in a major school-desegregation case.

The state of Missouri asked the High Court to overturn lower-court rulings that require it to continue paying for Kansas City's elaborate desegregation plan, which has cost more than $1.3 billion since it began in 1985.

The Court's ruling in the case of Missouri v. Jenkins (Case No. 93-1823) could have far-reaching implications for the issue of when court supervision of other desegregation plans might end.

The goals of the Kansas City remedial plan "far exceed the scope of the violation found in this case," John R. Munich, an assistant attorney general of Missouri, told the Justices during the oral arguments.

Several Justices suggested that the lower courts had exceeded their authority by requiring Missouri to continue paying for special programs until student achievement in the district shows greater gains.

"I just see no end to this," Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told the lawyer for the African-American schoolchildren in Kansas City who, along with the district, are fighting the state's attempt to win a partial release from its obligation to pay for desegregation programs.

Justice Kennedy added that the Supreme Court's 1992 decision in another desegregation case, Freeman v. Pitts, requires U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark to move as quickly as possible toward restoring control of the Kansas City district to elected state and local officials.

"I fear that the only way for you to continue this funding is to continue court supervision," Justice Kennedy told the children's lawyer, Theodore M. Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Mr. Shaw argued that it is too early for court supervision of the Kansas City case to end because special programs and improvements to school facilities have just begun to make an impact in the past three years.

"The state has not even attempted to meet its burden of proof" that the vestiges of prior state-mandated segregation in Kansas City have been eliminated, Mr. Shaw told the High Court.

State Pays Most Costs

The Kansas City remedial plan is one of the most sweeping of any desegregation case in the nation. Instead of mandatory busing, the plan called for a physical and educational overhaul of district schools to improve opportunities for black children and lure white students from the suburbs.

The Supreme Court declined in 1989 to review the scope of the plan. But it used the case to rule, in a 5-to-4 decision in 1990, that federal judges could order local governments to raise taxes to correct constitutional violations. (See Education Week, 05/03/89, and related story)

Despite a doubling of the property tax in Kansas City, the state has paid most of the costs of the plan--about $200 million a year.

At issue in this appeal are a series of orders by Judge Clark in 1992 requiring the state to pay for education-improvement programs for the 1992-93 school year. The orders also required the state to pay for salary increases for classroom teachers and noninstructional employees.

The state took issue with the funding orders and, for the first time, asked that Judge Clark declare portions of the desegregation plan complete.

The judge declined to do so, and his orders were affirmed by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

The state appealed the funding orders to the Supreme Court. But once the High Court granted review, the state expanded its arguments and asked the Court to re-examine the entire remedial plan. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1995.)

During oral arguments, some Justices suggested that it would be improper to use the current appeal to question the scope of the remedial plan.

"That's over and done with," Associate Justice David H. Souter told Mr. Munich. "We denied [review] on that question in 1989."

Nonetheless, the Justices appeared interested in many of the particulars of the Kansas City case.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked about the difference in per-pupil funding between Kansas City and the state as a whole.

The annual statewide per-pupil-spending figure is between $3,000 and $4,000, Mr. Munich said, while in Kansas City, the state spends $9,000 per pupil, not counting the capital costs of the desegregation plan.

Ten More Years?

Justice Kennedy asked Mr. Shaw whether Judge Clark had given "any guidance as to when it might be feasible or practicable to end" his supervision of the case.

Mr. Shaw responded that the judge has asked for plans regarding a phaseout of supervision that might take place over time, from three to 10 years.

Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cited the judge's order that the state provide money to boost salaries for the district's noninstructional employees to suggest that his supervision of the district had become too detailed.

"I just wonder if that might be an abuse of discretion," Justice O'Connor said to Mr. Shaw about the salary order, which had received relatively little attention in court papers filed in the case. "It has nothing to do with student achievement. I'm just quite amazed."

Mr. Shaw responded that the district had been so underfunded over the years that even salary increases for noninstructional workers could be justified as a way of eliminating vestiges of the segregated system.

Not all of the Justices were ready to join in the call for an end to court supervision of the Kansas City case.

Justice Souter sharply questioned Mr. Munich about whether student test scores should be considered in determining the effectiveness of a desegregation remedy.

"Do you take the position that measurement of student achievement is irrelevant?" he asked the state's lawyer.

"We do," Mr. Munich replied.

"You think it's irrelevant?" Justice Souter repeated with obvious incredulity.

He later suggested that the state was losing sight of the purpose of the desegregation plan--to eliminate all vestiges of the segregated system.

Poor student achievement could be one such vestige, he said.

Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer raised the same point, asking if, as a result of a segregated school system, some pupils could not read, why not look at students' reading scores when evaluating the effects of a remedial plan.

"Can't you at least look to see if they can read now?" Justice Breyer asked.

No Achievement Standard

Mr. Shaw, the lawyer for the black schoolchildren, stressed that the plaintiffs were not arguing that student achievement must reach a certain level before a school system could be released from court supervision.

"Unitary status does not depend on any particular degree of test scores," he said. "The district court simply did not establish such a standard."

Paul Bender, a deputy solicitor general in the Justice Department who joined in the argument in support of the black schoolchildren, argued that judges must have discretion to weigh such factors as test scores, graduation rates, and attendance rates to determine whether a desegregation plan is effective.

For example, he said, the judge might compare 10th-grade students in Kansas City with students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds in a city such as Philadelphia.

Justice Kennedy retorted that such a comparison "sounds to me like a fascinating sociological inquiry. But I question whether it is a practicable measure to decide whether to turn the district" back to local control.

Vol. 14, Issue 17

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