Equity & Diversity

Ashcroft’s Desegregation Record Questioned

By Jessica Portner — January 24, 2001 6 min read
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School desegregation emerged as a prominent theme during last week’s often-rancorous Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the selection of former Sen. John D. Ashcroft as attorney general.

Democrats charged that the conservative Republican from Missouri had misled the committee about his state’s role in opposing efforts to desegregate schools. Mr. Ashcroft is a former attorney general and governor of Missouri.

In a Senate hearing room packed with supporters—as well as critics committed to derailing the confirmation of one of incoming President Bush’s most controversial Cabinet nominees—Democratic committee members grilled Mr. Ashcroft on his opposition to court-ordered desegregation of the St. Louis and Kansas City public schools.

In two separate court cases—one originating in St. Louis in 1972 and the other in Kansas City in 1977—plaintiffs argued that children in predominantly black schools in the two cities were receiving an inferior education. Eventually, the federal courts concluded that students attending public schools in those cities were being denied their rights to an equal education under the U.S. Constitution and ordered the state to finance locally approved remedies. The state has spent nearly $1.6 billion on desegregation in St. Louis since 1981, and more than $1.3 billion in Kansas City since 1986.

When asked about his role in those desegregation cases, which were embroiled in the courts for nearly three decades, Mr. Ashcroft said that the state of Missouri had never been found guilty of wrongdoing. “In all of the cases where the court made the order, I followed the order, both as attorney general and governor,” Mr. Ashcroft said. The state “had done nothing wrong,” he said.

But, as several senators pointed out the following day of the confirmation hearings, a U.S. District Court in 1981 had threatened to hold Mr. Ashcroft—then the state’s attorney general—in contempt for “continual failure to comply” with orders to file desegregation plans for the two urban districts.

Those senators also pointed to court documents stating that Missouri was a “primary constitutional wrongdoer” in maintaining segregated and unequal schools.

Actions Defended

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., criticized Mr. Ashcroft’s repeated attempts to overturn the desegregation orders. While Mr. Ashcroft was attorney general and later governor—two positions he held consecutively between 1976 and 1993—Missouri unsuccessfully sought to appeal the desegregation orders and was repeatedly rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to listen to the state’s arguments.

“How do you justify your relentless opposition to the voluntary desegregation and the scorched-earth legal strategy to try and block it?” Sen. Kennedy asked. Mr. Ashcroft disagreed with that characterization of his actions as Missouri attorney general and governor. He asserted that the state had complied with court directives.

And, he said, any legal challenges that he launched as state attorney general or as governor were based on legitimate concerns that the state would have to shoulder too much of the financial burden of desegregating schools. He argued that because the state did not create the districts’ segregated schools, the financial burden of desegregating them should not fall on it.

In his testimony, Mr. Ashcroft said that Missouri officials had sought an appeal of the St. Louis desegregation plan to the Supreme Court because state officials estimated it would cost $100 million to send more than 13,000 inner-city students into surrounding suburban schools and transport white students into the city. “I opposed a mandate by the federal government that the state, which had done nothing wrong, ... should be asked to pay this very substantial sum of money,” Mr. Ashcroft told committee members.

In response to that explanation, Sen. Kennedy asked: “My question is how costly was this going to be before you were going to say that those kids were going to lousy schools and that you were going to do something about it?”

Mr. Ashcroft responded by further elaborating on why he fought the desegregation plans adopted by the two cities. The racial imbalances that existed in the mostly black St. Louis and Kansas City schools, he argued, were due to white migration to the suburbs. “St. Louis for a number of decades now has lost more population than virtually any other city ... and this was not a consequence of any state activity,” Mr. Ashcroft said.

What Would Ashcroft Do?

William L. Taylor, a well-known civil rights lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the St. Louis case, was one of a group of desegregation experts who expressed concern last week over how Mr. Ashcroft’s record might affect future legal battles percolating in schools if he is confirmed by the Senate to head the Department of Justice.

For instance, Mr. Taylor said, the Justice Department often plays a major role in enforcing desegregation laws, such as choosing a mediator in clashes over court-ordered desegregation, filing legal briefs in such cases, and guiding the courts on the subtleties of federal policy.

"[Mr. Ashcroft] is busy giving assurances that he would enforce the [desegregation] laws. ... I don’t have that confidence,” he said. “He has certainly fought the law tooth and nail.”

Others say educators should be concerned about more than desegregation. Arthur L. Coleman, a lawyer and former deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s office for civil rights under President Clinton, said that if the Missourian becomes the new attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft—who has voiced opposition to affirmative action policies—will likely have the opportunity to weigh in on whether magnet schools may consider race when making admissions decisions.

The new attorney general will also likely have the chance, Mr. Coleman said, to decide how to handle legal complaints from students that high- stakes state testing programs are discriminatory. Some African-American and Hispanic students have filed lawsuits in recent years saying they had been denied opportunities to graduate because standardized tests were biased against them or because they lacked the equal educational resources needed to pass them.

“Beyond the question of ‘Will you enforce civil rights laws?’” Mr. Coleman continued, is the question: “When you are advocating, what are you advocating?”

As the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration neared and the hearings continued, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, appealed to his Senate colleagues to “reject the politics of division.”

He defended Mr. Ashcroft’s record as “distinguished” and said the Senate should take the attorney general- designate at his word that he would uphold all laws regardless of whether he agreed with them.

“If we want to see the most qualified citizens to serve in government, we must do everything we can to stop the politics of personal destruction,” Mr. Hatch said during the hearings.

At press time last week, the Judiciary Committee had yet to take a vote on the nomination. But several Republican Senate leaders predicted that Mr. Ashcroft would narrowly win the panel’s endorsement and that his name would be sent to the floor for a vote on confirmation this week.

If Mr. Ashcroft’s nomination makes it to the full Senate, Sen. Kennedy vowed he and other Democrats would try to block the confirmation with a filibuster. In that case, 60 votes would be required to end the debate.

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ashcroft’s Desegregation Record Questioned

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