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Supreme Court Hears Debate on the Price of Equality in Schools

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If spending a bundle of money would make for an exemplary school system, the Kansas City district should be among the nation’s best.

Since 1986, the state of Missouri has spent $1.3 billion to upgrade the Kansas City schools. Thanks to this extraordinary infusion of state aid, the city’s schools spend three times more per student than the state average.

Nonetheless, a federal judge who ordered the extra spending ruled that the city’s 17-year-old desegregation program is not yet complete because test scores of city students remain below “national norms.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Kansas City case, seeking to settle one of the last remaining questions in desegregation law.

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In two recent rulings, the high court has said that a court-ordered school desegregation program should end once spending has been raised to the levels of other districts, facilities have been desegregated and the “vestiges of past discrimination eliminated to the extent possible.”

But are below-average test scores in a big-city school district a “vestige of past discrimination” that must be eliminated?

No, said state lawyers, arguing that they should not be held responsible for how students perform.

John R. Munich, Missouri’s chief counsel, said that the state should be required to “allocate the resources” to pay for the required programs but that it cannot guarantee students will learn.

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“Is student achievement irrelevant?” asked an incredulous Justice David H. Souter. Joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, he suggested that changes in test scores are a key indicator of whether the program has succeeded.

Lawyers representing the black students and the Clinton Administration agreed that the desegregation program should continue until test scores increase.

But a skeptical Justice Antonin Scalia wondered how the state can be held responsible for test scores. “Half the country is below the national norms,” he said.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy appeared to agree. “I see no end to this,” he said.

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The Kansas City case has been closely watched for years because it offers the most striking example of a judge seeking to remake a school system in an effort to remedy past segregation.

Beginning in 1977, Judge Russell G. Clark ordered the busing of 16,000 students to integrate the schools. When that spurred “white flight” to the suburbs, Clark turned to upgrading the city schools, partly in hopes of attracting white students.

Because the state of Missouri was held jointly liable for failing to desegregate the school system, it was required to pay for many of the educational improvements.


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