The End of the Line for St. Louis Schools

Why a "yes" vote on Tuesday is more important than you might think

Here are the three best reasons for city voters to reject a sales-tax measure next Tuesday for funding continuation of school desegregation:

* You trust that a federal judiciary mined with conservative judges appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush will abandon their constituencies and advance the interests of a civil-rights movement they despise.

* You trust that the Missouri Legislature will always "do the right thing" by black people.

* You trust that if you stick with your own principles, things will just have a way of working themselves out for St. Louis city schoolchildren, even if their school district goes into receivership.

No one else wants to say it quite like this, but city voters have their backs to the wall next week. If voters stay at home, follow their knee-jerk anti-tax instincts or otherwise decide to send the world an angry message about bad schools, poor teacher pay, political correctness or other valiant truths on Tuesday, public education in St. Louis will be plunged into an abyss.

A "no" vote on Tuesday -- unlikely but by no means implausible -- would negate most of two landmark agreements: Senate Bill 781 (passed last session in Jefferson City) and the tentative settlement deal that all the warring parties in the desegregation arena approved earlier this month.

As a result of those accords, passing the two-thirds-cent sales tax would trigger all sorts of good things for the city's schools. There would be an extra $40 million in state money annually (and indefinitely) to those schools and a staggering $180 million in more state money for capital improvements over 10 years. There would be long-term continuation of a voluntary-desegregation plan (in streamlined form) that the families of more than 13,000 black students in the city have embraced each year.

Conversely, a "no" vote automatically kills the settlement and takes all the key monetary components out of the Senate bill. More important, it places the future of the city schools back in the hands of the federal courts, which this time are likely to leave them to fend for themselves, meaning without any judicial mandate for Missouri's socially challenged Legislature to lift a finger.

If that happens, city voters, let me tell you what you've won:
* The monstrous financial burden of educating 13,000 black kids who will be returning -- perhaps immediately, at most in a handful of years -- to a city school district that clearly can't educate the kids it already has.

* A resulting decrease of 15 percent in the amount of money available per pupil and an accompanying projected shortfall of $245 million in capital needs. (These numbers according to research by the 1995 Civic Progress Task Force Report on Desegregation.)

* Nearly total resegregation of both city and county schools, with the city district becoming at least 85 percent black. Just imagine the good old boys in outstate Missouri being asked to give extra cash voluntarily to a nearly all-black school district that they've already come to hate under the yoke of federal court orders.

* Almost no local control of a school district that is already likely to lose accreditation and be placed in the hands of a state-appointed "CEO" and that, without the financial guarantees of Senate Bill 781, becomes a prime prospect for receivership.

Why state all this so negatively? Why not just talk, like most desegregation supporters, in terms of the considerable achievements of the program as documented by higher test scores and graduation rates and better college attendance among black kids? Why not focus on the endless interracial success stories of the magnet schools?

Why not emphasize the ultimate and immeasurable benefit -- for students in the city and suburbs alike -- of people of different races growing up together, learning together and understanding one another in a way they never could with a segregated system of public education?

Why not? Because too many people have heard it all before. Too many people have heard urgent appeals for this tax measure or that to "save" the city schools, only to see those schools continue to fail miserably, prompting the next tax measure to "save" them again.

There's a chance that the schools and their supporters -- however well intended -- have cried wolf once too often in the eyes of a numbed and cynical electorate. There's an even better chance that some people of both races who don't happen to like one another (to put it mildly) will take out their ill will on an often-unpopular desegregation program.

A "no" vote on Tuesday will have only one meaning to hostile state legislators: The city isn't willing to put up its fair share of school-desegregation costs. It will send only one message to U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh (or, if he chooses, to some other judge): The parties couldn't settle this among themselves, so it's time to follow the law and let the chips fall where they may.

No one is certain what that means, but legal experts on both sides of the battle agree that opponents of desegregation -- championed by Attorney General Jay Nixon -- have the upper hand, based on a number of cases, including one in Kansas City known as Missouri vs. Jenkins. In that case, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices gave a clear green light to ending desegregation programs like the one in St. Louis even if it meant the return of segregated schools.

Consider what one of the presumably moderate justices, Anthony Kennedy, wrote: "An initial finding of discrimination cannot be used as the basis for a wholesale shift of authority over day-to-day school operations from parents, teachers and elected officials to an unaccountable district judge whose province is law, not education."

Nixon's response to that: "These pronouncements make clear that desegregation remedies are temporary and limited in their scope. Once they have succeeded, they should be dissolved."

Get the point here? The conservative judiciary sees itself as finished with its work here, or, really, that it's finished undoing the work of its less conservative predecessors.

Bill Taylor, the Washington-based NAACP lawyer who has argued the case here, isn't exactly brimming with optimism if voters send it back to the courts.

"If this settlement doesn't go through, there's a danger that in the foreseeable future court-ordered funding will end and you'll have an increased student population in the city without any means of meeting their needs," Taylor told me this week. "It could be just a terrible blow for the children and the well-being of the city."

William Danforth, who toiled for three thankless years and emerged as a real statesman by piecing together the settlement, wrote recently, "If the sales-tax increase fails, the opportunity of a generation will have been lost."

Sorry to be so negative, but when it comes to the city schools today, there's a reason for the doomsday scenarios.

It's called doomsday.

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