Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Curious Case of Missouri V. Jenkins: The End of the Road for Court-Ordered Desegregation?

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Curious Case of Missouri V. Jenkins: The End of the Road for Court-Ordered Desegregation?

Article excerpt

This article argues that Missouri v. Jenkins III (1995) reflects a trend toward relaxation in the assurance of equal educational opportunities. In that case, the Supreme Court (a) reversed a federal trial court order allowing salary increases for school personnel and quality education programs in the Kansas City school district, and (b) reasoned that asking whether student achievement levels were at or below national norms was inappropriate to determine whether the district had achieved unitary status. A detailed discussion of the justices' opinions in Jenkins III is presented, with reflections on the implications of the case for future school desegregation efforts.

INTRODUCTION

The Supreme Court's observation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," may be the most significant declaration ever made on equal educational opportunities (p. 495). In Brown I, the Supreme Court declared race-based de jure segregation in the public schools unconstitutional. Brown II established the rate at which desegregation efforts were to be implemented nationwide. Yet, more than 40 years after Brown and nearly 40 Supreme Court school desegregation cases later, few issues continue to evoke as much concern as the use of judicial orders to ensure equal access to public education for children of color in the United States. In the first 20 years after Brown, proponents of school desegregation successfully argued that public education as a means of ensuring opportunity, access, and quality education for the nation's youth was the principal instrumentality for awakening America's conscience.

The Court's 1974 decision in Milliken v. Bradley I, striking down a proposed remedy involving suburban and inner-city schools in the Detroit metropolitan area, represented the first major defeat for school desegregation at that judicial level. Until that decision, the Court had led the nation through two decades of slow but steady progress toward eliminating the vestiges of de jure and de facto segregation in public education. Indeed, as Brown (1994) contends, Milliken I can be viewed as the culmination of a national antiBlack movement, marking the first in a series of judicial setbacks for proponents of school desegregation. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall saw Milliken I as more a reflection of public opinion that the nation had gone far enough in enforcing the Constitution's guarantee of equal justice than as a product of neutral principles of law. Justice William Douglas, another dissenter, viewed the Court's decision in Milliken I as setting Black progress back to a period antedating the pernicious 1896 separate-butequal doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson (Brown, 1994). Moreover, as reflected in a contemporary case, Missouri v. Jenkins III Jenkins III (1995), the Court's continuing reliance on its later ruling in Milliken v. Bradley II (1977) suggests a continuing era of judicial retrenchment with regard to equal educational opportunities for students of color.

Jenkins III stands for the proposition that a federal trial court exceeded its discretion in ordering salary increases for school personnel and quality education programs in the Kansas City (Missouri) School District (KCMSD). In it, the Court reasoned that asking whether student achievement levels in this district were at or below national norms at many grade levels was inappropriate to determine whether the system had achieved unitary, or desegregated, status. More ominously, however, the Court's opinion, supported by the dissenters in Missouri v. Jenkins II (1990), sent an unmistakable signal that the highest court in the land was seeking to restrain its support in the struggle to end racial segregation in the schools. Given the on-going efforts to eliminate desegregated schooling in the KCMSD-evidenced most recently by the parties entering into a tentative agreement that would free Missouri from its obligation to pay for the desegregation plan after 1999 (Schmidt, 1995)-the effect of the Court's ruling on the dispute in Kansas City is uncertain. …

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