Equity & Diversity

Deal Could End St. Louis Desegregation Case

By Caroline Hendrie — January 13, 1999 4 min read

With a state-imposed deadline fast approaching, the parties to the St. Louis school desegregation case announced a tentative settlement last week in their 27-year-old court battle.

The parties to the case expressed varying degrees of satisfaction with their proposed agreement, which was loosely based on a state law enacted last spring that provides strong financial incentives to wrap up the case entirely by March 15.

Still, the university leader appointed by a federal judge in 1996 to broker a settlement argued that the deal stands apart at a time when judges are sometimes abruptly closing the books on decades-old desegregation cases.

“This plan for ending the court control is the best ever devised by any city or state in the nation,” declared William H. Danforth, the chairman of the board and former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. “It is good for the children. It is good for families. It is good for teachers. It is good for citizens and taxpayers of Missouri.”

Yet neither Mr. Danforth nor anyone else involved in the suit was prepared to break out the champagne. By all accounts, the deal is likely to collapse unless St. Louis voters agree to a new sales tax designed to raise $21 million to help pay for it.

The referendum on that tax is slated for Feb. 2, less than four weeks from the day the proposed settlement was announced. And even if the tax plan flies, the agreement remains subject to approval by a federal judge.

“It’s absolutely too early to celebrate,” said Cleveland Hammonds Jr., the superintendent of the 43,000-student St. Louis system.

Programs To Continue

Since a 1980 ruling ordered a new plan to relieve racial segregation in St. Louis’ schools, the city and its suburbs have taken part in a complex effort to bring black and white students together and improve schools that are predominantly black. About 85 percent of the city’s students are now African-American.

The settlement’s supporters said it would continue central elements of that plan--at least for a while--most notably, an ambitious city-to-suburb student-transfer program and the city’s network of magnet schools.

The pact also aims to cushion the financial blow to the city schools if the state were freed from its desegregation obligations.

Under the proposed settlement, the state would replace about $45 million of the roughly $76 million it now supplies the district under the court order. After the revenue from the proposed local sales tax is factored in, that would mean a net loss to the city schools of about $10 million--some of which would be offset by ending court oversight, Mr. Hammonds said.

“It is not a perfect settlement, but it is the best that we can gain under these circumstances,” he said.

Another feature of the deal commits St. Louis to redouble its efforts to recruit high-quality teachers and to identify and improve more low-performing schools.

This year, 10 schools adopted reform plans aimed at improving student performance and avoiding dramatic staff shakeups, as part of an interim agreement reached last year with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Under the newly announced arrangement, that number would grow to 40.

William L. Taylor, a Washington-based lawyer representing the NAACP, called the academic-improvement plan an overlooked but vital facet of the preliminary settlement.

“It’s building accountability provisions right into the agreement,” he said.

Transfers’ Fate Uncertain

Under the state-subsidized program of voluntary transfers, 13,500 inner-city black students ride buses to one of 15 suburban districts, and 1,400 suburban whites attend magnet schools in the city.

The program is held up as a national model by such integration advocates as Gary Orfield, the Harvard University desegregation scholar who helped conceive the program as a court-appointed expert in the case in the early 1980s.

Under the proposed settlement, the suburban districts would accept new city students for the next three years, and keep any transfer students until they graduated. After that, the suburban school boards could choose whether to shut their doors to city students or continue enrolling them.

State funding would be available for new city students accepted during the next decade.

To trim transportation costs, city students could no longer go to any community that would accept them. Instead, students from certain neighborhoods would be sent to specific suburban schools.

Meanwhile, the city’s magnet schools would be expanded, but suburban whites would no longer have priority over whites from within the city limits, Mr. Hammond said.

State Attorney General Jeremiah W. “Jay” Nixon, who has been fighting to extricate the state from the lawsuit since 1993, called the proposed deal “responsible.”

“This settlement allows all parties to redirect full attention to the important matter of education, not litigation,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 1999 edition of Education Week as Deal Could End St. Louis Desegregation Case

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