A federal appeals court has reinstated a 23-year-old desegregation case against the Kansas City, Mo., schools, ruling that the judge who dismissed it in November did so with insufficient evidence that the district had improved enough to justify its release from court supervision.
The ruling last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit revives one of the nation’s most closely watched and most expensive cases aimed at ensuring that all children, regardless of race, receive equal educational opportunity.
It began in 1977, when a group of parents sued to force improvements in the beleaguered district, and eventually led to a court-ordered, $2 billion campaign to upgrade academics and facilities.
The three-judge panel of the appeals court noted that U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple had dismissed the case even though he himself had commented that he was unconvinced that the district was trying hard enough to improve.
As a result of that legal error, the appellate judges took the relatively unusual step of instructing the federal trial court to select another judge to preside over the revived case.
Accreditation Loss Looming
The decision does not immediately affect the scheduled withdrawal this spring of the 32,000-student school district’s state accreditation.
The Missouri board of education voted in October to strip the district of its accreditation as of May 1 because, despite millions spent to improve student performance and other indicators, the system had failed to meet the state’s 11 performance standards.
Missouri Commissioner of Education Robert E. Bartman said last week that he foresaw no change in the plan to deaccredit the district, since that decision was based on data such as dropout and attendance rates and test scores that could not be updated or changed before that time.
Mr. Bartman said he believes that the prospect of losing its accreditation has motivated the district to work harder, and he expressed worry that the return of federal court oversight might detract from that focus.
“The court’s jurisdiction was ineffective in moving the district toward academic achievement,” Mr. Bartman said.
“They had other issues they were dealing with,” he added. “My worry is that with the district back under the court’s jurisdiction, it could mean it’s protected from consequences for students not performing.”
In Chinyere Jenkins et al v. State of Missouri, the three appellate judges were not asked to rule on the decision to take away the district’s accreditation. But in their unanimous ruling, they called it a “statement of thunderclap proportions” that would place the district “in a most difficult situation.”
The judges said that while many improvement plans have been drawn up in the five targeted areas of curriculum, classroom practices, professional development, assessment, and accountability, those plans have not been fully implemented.
Mark A. Thornhill, a lawyer for the district, said he regretted that the case was revived, but was encouraged because the educational plans the judges said should be the focus of the district’s efforts are ones that it is already implementing.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as U.S. Appellate Panel Reinstates Kansas City Desegregation Case