KC desegration case may not be over yet

Friday, August 22, 2003

Anyone who thinks the Kansas City school desegregation case is finally over doesn't know Arthur Benson II, the lawyer who has led the legal challenges that have kept the case alive for 26 years.

The cost of having the district run by a federal judge all those years has far exceeded the $2 billion often cited in news stories. That amount is what state taxpayers have paid -- under orders by a federal judge and without a vote -- since 1985.

Of course, it was the reluctance of voters in the Kansas City district to approve levy increases and bond issues that led to the claim that the lack of adequate funding had created a segregated school system.

Kansas City, like many other urban areas, experienced the suburban migration in which affluent residents -- mostly white -- moved to new subdivisions on the fringes of cities while poorer residents -- mostly black -- remained in the city cores. As a result, the student population in public schools reflected the population shifts, and urban schools became predominately black.

Benson, a longtime activist lawyer, made the unusual claim that surburban school districts should be held responsible for providing racially integrated education for black inner-city students. U.S. District Judge Russell Clark bought that argument and ordered one of the most complicated inter-district transportation systems ever devised for students -- including personal taxi service for many students, all at taxpayers' expense.

That's not all. The judge also, thanks to Benson's legal prodding, ordered the construction of elaborate new schools filled with facilities unheard of even in the most affluent surburban schools. The idea was that the splendid facilities would attract white students and thereby contribute to a balancing of the black-white ratio.

However, very little change was ever achieved by all of this. Eventually, Judge Clark removed suburban district from the case.

Not long after Judge Clark retired, the new judge, Dean Whipple, tried to dismiss the case. But an appeals court overruled Judge Whipple, and Benson took a new tact, claiming the achievement gap between black and white students remaining in the district was unacceptable.

Last week, Whipple ruled that the district had made sufficient progress in closing the achievement gap. But Benson said there are still problems -- which he blames on a segregated school district -- that need to be resolved.

Most everyone involved in this drawn-out case has long ago lost sight of the fundamental problem that caused the district to get into such bad shape in the first place. That was the failure of voters to impose more tax burden on themselves to fund the school district.

In the intervening years, court-ordered spending also proved that throwing money at a failing school system isn't the solution. It takes wise use of those resources and solid education programs -- the same kind of system used by most Missouri school district at a fraction of the cost.

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