Desegration Primer Jay Nixon Gains Strong Position; Here Are Basics

Article excerpt

THE POLITICIANS POSTURE. The lawyers maneuver. The educators spout educationese. The school administrators warn of shrinking budgets. And the theoreticians challenge the intellectual underpinnings of the nation's experiment in school desegregation.

No wonder parents and children are confused by what is happening to St. Louis' 15-year-old school desegregation program.

Here's where things stand as the buses prepare to roll for another year:

The law: The U.S. Supreme Court dealt Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon a strong legal hand in the Kansas City school desegregation decision two months ago. That decision strengthened Nixon's position in the St. Louis case as well.

The education: Magnet school students and some city transfer students show signs of modest educational progress. But the improvement is not dramatic, and in other classrooms, there has been no improvement. The view is widespread - from the politicians in Jefferson City to the teachers in the classroom - that the effectiveness of the St. Louis schools is hampered by a bloated bureaucracy at the central office at 911 Locust Street.

The politics: Those most closely involved think Nixon is playing politics with school desegregation, in the same way that his two predecessors as attorney general were accused of playing politics. The desegregation program remains unpopular with most white voters and some blacks.

The money: The St. Louis and Kansas City desegregation programs have been the most expensive in the country, costing more than $1 billion each. Now both face drastic belt-tightening that some educators argue could jeopardize education. The St. Louis School Board came up with some ideas for solving the problem in a desegregation report released last week, but most of the ideas were dismissed as pie-in-the-sky.

The philosophy: The premise underlying court-ordered desegregation - that racially segregated schools are inherently unequal - is challenged today in a way it hasn't been in decades. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says he's infuriated by the idea that black schools are inferior just because they're black. But some social scientists say the four-decade long effort to desegregate the schools was instrumental in creating the black middle class. The Law

For 15 years, Missouri attorneys general John Ashcroft and William Webster tried to get the Supreme Court to upend the St. Louis and Kansas City desegregation programs. They failed in court but did well in the court of public opinion where the programs are popular only among many black parents.

By this year, the composition of the court had changed enough to turn that losing argument into a winning one. The replacement of Justice Thurgood Marshall with Thomas tipped the balance of the court from 5-4 in favor of the Kansas City desegregation plan to 5-4 against.

The Supreme Court's opinion gives Nixon new leverage for a hearing in St. Louis in February.

At that time, a federal court here will hear arguments on whether the St. Louis schools are "unitary" - whether the dual, segregated system has been dismantled enough to end court supervision.

The Supreme Court's Kansas City decision "lowered the hurdles" that a school district has to clear before being declared partially unitary, says Bruce La Pierre, a Washington University law professor and expert on the desegregation case.

One of the lower hurdles is academic performance. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said that low student achievement might not result from segregation. He instructed the lower courts to "sharply limit, if not dispense with, its reliance on this (student achievement) factor" in deciding when to release a district from court supervision.

Evidently impatient to return schools to district control, the court also stressed that Kansas City's desegregation plan had been expensive and in effect for years. …