Equity & Diversity

Settlement Ends St. Louis Desegregation Case

By Caroline Hendrie — March 24, 1999 5 min read
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St. Louis has become the latest big-city school district to close the books on a decades-long struggle over desegregation, following a federal judge’s approval of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by black families 27 years ago.

“The business of running the schools and the educational process is now returned to the professional administrators, teachers, and staff,” U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. declared in his March 12 order dismissing the case. “They must stand on their own feet.”

The settlement will provide continued funding for an extensive city-to-suburb transfer program that is often held up as a national model. Although individual communities may opt out of the program, and the state may eventually discontinue it, they may do so only after a gradual phaseout.

The agreement also obligates St. Louis to preserve its network of magnet schools, which enroll about 1,350 suburban whites as well as students from the city.

Under the deal, the district must also meet specific student-achievement targets and adopt new accountability measures affecting teachers, principals, and entire schools.

At the same time, the city schools will receive $180 million in state aid to build and renovate schools, and will be spared deep budget cuts despite the end of court-ordered state desegregation subsidies.

National advocates of school integration called the agreement the best that could be expected at a time of growing judicial eagerness to end long-running desegregation disputes.

“Given what’s happened in other cities with court orders that have ended, this is positive in terms of keeping desegregation alive,” said Amy Stuart Wells, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Union Not Happy

The compromise agreement attracted some noteworthy critics--most prominently the St. Louis Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

The union is unhappy with what it sees as a lack of mechanisms to ensure that the district lives up to the promises laid out in the agreement. Those include specific goals to raise test scores, lower the dropout rate, improve attendance, and attract and retain teachers.

Other provisions unpopular with the union require the district to add 30 more schools to its current list of 10 schools slated for intensive reform efforts, and to “reconstitute” each year at least two schools that are not showing adequate improvement.

Despite such complaints, Judge Limbaugh said he was impressed by the community’s overall satisfaction with the settlement.

“Rarely, if ever, in school desegregation cases and infrequently in class-action suits in general, have government entities and the public shown such amazing support for a settlement,” the judge stated in his order.

One secret to that success may have been the ability of the parties in the lawsuit to skirt a sensitive issue that is typically central in desegregation cases coming to a close: whether the city system should be declared “unitary.” By avoiding a declaration of unitary status--a legal term meaning a district is free of the effects of past discrimination--the parties sought to discourage legal challenges to the continuing desegregation efforts.

“I really think it deserves the title ‘unique,’ ” William L. Taylor, a Washington lawyer who represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the case, said of the deal.

State Law a Breakthrough

The St. Louis case was originally brought in 1972 by black schoolchildren in the city and their parents. The NAACP later intervened on behalf of families in the greater metropolitan area. Besides the state and the city district, the defendants included more than 20 suburban systems that the plaintiffs originally targeted for merger with the city schools.

Efforts to broker a deal in the closely watched case began in 1996 with the selection of William H. Danforth, the chairman of the board of Washington University in St. Louis, as a court-appointed settlement coordinator.

His appointment followed a push by the state to have the district declared unitary in order to end the state subsidies ordered by the court in 1980.

A breakthrough came last spring, when the legislature passed a package of financial incentives designed to spur a settlement. The incentives were contingent on two events’ occurring by March 15: that the St. Louis case be closed, and that city voters adopt a sales-tax increase aimed at raising an estimated $23 million annually for the schools. (“St. Louis, Kansas City Move Closer to the End of Desegregation Cases,” Feb. 10, 1999.)

Because those conditions have now been met, the district will receive extra state aid of at least $40 million annually to help offset the loss of court-ordered desegregation payments. Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr. has said the remaining $6 million to $10 million hole in the district’s nearly $419 million budget will be manageable in light of the savings that will result from lifting court oversight.

Also riding on the settlement were aid increases for districts around the state, based on their enrollment of poor students. Those hikes are expected to mean from $35 million to $40 million for Kansas City, which will see its own desegregation subsidies vanish this year, and about the same amount for other districts.

Under the settlement, the state will continue underwriting, for at least 10 years, the education of black students from St. Louis who transfer to participating suburban districts. Starting in 2009-10, the state may begin phasing out the program by ending funding for any new transfer students. Under that scenario, the phaseout would not be complete until 2021, when the last transfer students would graduate.

Fewer Choices

Most of the 16 suburban districts that now enroll some 13,000 city youngsters could choose to accept no more new students starting in the fall of 2002, though some have already stopped doing so because their resident black enrollments have grown to at least 25 percent. One district won agreement from the parties to stop accepting new transfers starting next year.

Primarily to save money on busing, St. Louis students will be given fewer choices among suburban schools under the deal. Youngsters will be steered to particular suburbs depending on where they live in the city, instead of being able to enroll in any district that will take them.

If districts elect to pull out of the program, they will generally be expected to keep any transfer students then in their systems. Some students may have to switch districts, though, because of the zoning.

Ms. Wells, the co-author of a 1997 book on the region’s transfer program, said she fears what will happen once the state’s funding guarantees lapse a decade from now. “The thing that worries me the most,” she said, “is that in 10 years everyone will say, ‘OK, we did that. Goodbye.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as Settlement Ends St. Louis Desegregation Case

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