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
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
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
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
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
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. …