The End of Deseg As We Know It

City schools face an uncertain future -- a crucial court settlement, a Feb. 2 sales-tax vote, a teachers' union opposed to the tax, accreditation tests this spring and the prospect of a state takeover. It could be a school year from hell.

The union has made the decision that the proposed sales tax and contingent state funds don't provide enough money to pay for what needs to be done in the city schools. If the settlement falls through, it goes back to the court; at this time, that means Judge Limbaugh. Basically, the teachers' union has decided that the courts would provide a softer landing and a better-funded phase-out -- or even a continuation -- of the desegregation plan than the deal that would be triggered by passage of the sales tax.

Those closer to the deal-making don't agree, describing the alternative to the sales tax's passing as nothing short of tragic. Danforth, the court-appointed settlement coordinator, sees the Missouri Legislature as having been, for once, in the forefront of public education when it passed SB 781, which set up a way to continue funding the desegregation program as long as an additional local tax is passed.

"The state has given us 781, and it's a remarkably generous piece of legislation when you consider what's gone on in every other state in the country," says Danforth. "There is no other state in the country that has a piece of legislation like this that is so sensitive to the needs of school districts with predominantly poor children. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. If we don't settle, or if we don't pass the tax, and we fail because of that, we will not be able to go back to the state Legislature again. This is the one chance we have, and it would be a tragedy to miss it."

James DeClue, a member of the education committee of the NAACP, which is a party in the settlement talks, thinks the teachers' union is misguided.

"I find it baffling as to why the teachers' union is opposing this," DeClue says. "If it isn't enough money, it's certainly better than no money. They have an option between this amount of money or no money. With no money, you have a bankrupt system, but with the money that can be raised as a result of matching funds from the state along with the money derived from the tax, we have essentially the same amount of money to continue the programs that have proved to be beneficial to students."

At least one weary negotiator involved in the marathon talks believes it is time to move on to more basic education issues and leave the legal maneuvering behind. Arriving at a settlement and passing the sales tax is the best, maybe only, deal in town.

"You try to balance all the issues. It's not a perfect solution and it causes financial difficulty for the district, but trying to move past the deseg debate and get to the student-achievement issues and the reform issues, to make inroads on those, it's worth it to get this behind us, so we can concentrate on that and quit arguing about the desegregation program. Make that a second-nature issue -- the integration will still be there, the policy will still be there. It's not the fairest way to distribute the financial obligations of the parties in order to get it done, but if it'll move the discussion to another level, I'm in support of it."

Whatever the view taken on the sales tax, this year will be a tumultuous one in the elongated life of the Liddell vs. Board of Education suit, which was filed in 1972. Minnie Liddell's children have long since grown up and graduated, some judges who have heard the case have died and thousands of students have moved through the system since the interdistrict transfer program began in 1983.

If the settlement and sales tax come to fruition, the program will get its first extrajudicial life-support system. If the program is thrown back into the lap of a judge, a slow death is more likely, easing transfer students out of the program over the next few years and scaling back the state's payments to the city and county schools. Either way, the much-maligned, sometimes heralded, desegregation plan will not remain the same.

When the Legislature, after much haggling and harrumphing, approved SB 781 last year, it appeared to be an imperfect remedy but a remedy nonetheless. Like any compromise, it had something to displease everyone, but the hope was that it didn't have so much that the people who had to make it happen would be repulsed. The state, the city and county school districts, and the original plaintiffs all had to see sufficient benefit in the deal to sign off on it.

The state wanted to curtail the money it was spending on the plan. The city school district didn't want to go bankrupt because it was not financially ready to take back the 12,000 African-American students who travel each day from the city to the suburbs for school. The 16 suburban school districts were at once concerned about losing the funds they derived from the desegregation program and also eager to be free to end their participation when they so desired. The plaintiffs -- Liddell and the NAACP -- generally wanted to continue the interdistrict transfer program, maintain the city magnet schools and improve academic-achievement levels.

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