Magnet schools draw criticism

Lucy Hodges

Lucy Hodges finds a measure designed to enhance equality is suffering a backlash.

The future of a much-touted "magnet" school programme in Kansas City, Missouri, hangs in the balance following a Supreme Court ruling last week that a lower court judge acted improperly when he ordered extra spending for mainly black Kansas City schools.

That decision, together with another ruling last week from the Supreme Court on the issue of affirmative action, is deeply worrying to America's dwindling band of liberals, who grew up believing that special measures were needed to overcome the legacy of slavery and to make sure the races went to school together.

So-called "magnet" schools have been introduced in cities to attract white students from the suburbs and private schools to well-funded schools in urban areas. Bussing children from one district to another is not allowed following a Supreme Court ruling in the early 1970s.

Approved by a vote of five to four, the latest Missouri ruling is a sign of the dramatically changing political climate in the United States. The Justices ruled that the lower court judge exceeded his authority when he ordered pay increases for teachers and better funding for remedial courses because students' test scores were below national norms.

Jay Nixon, the Missouri Attorney General, who had been highly critical of the Kansas City magnet schools, was jubilant. He said the ruling was a way to stop the inequity.

According to his figures, 45 per cent of Missouri education spending goes towards 9 per cent of the state's students, those in Kansas City and St Louis, who are largely black. The money funds special programmes which Missouri is required to provide to eliminate discrimination against blacks.

Mr Nixon said the city schools were taking more than their share of state money and that this inequity had to be ended.

The Supreme Court stopped short of ordering Kansas City to dismantle its magnet school programme, but it suggested school districts could free themselves from court-ordered desegregation by showing they had taken all practical steps and were committed to achieving desegregation.

The dissenting justices argued strenuously against the decision. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Clinton, wrote: "Given the deep, inglorious history of segregation in Missouri, to curtail desegregation at this time and in this manner is an action at once too swift and too soon."

The magnet school programme dates back to 1985. The idea was to attack two problems at once: to improve schools in what had become black areas; and to integrate the races.

More than Pounds 625 million has been spent on the Kansas City schools in the past 10 years. Critics say the scheme has not worked that well in that it has failed to attract many whites. Test scores did not improve enough, they say. The school district of 37,000 pupils is about one-quarter white and three-quarters ethnic minority, most of whom are black. About 2,000 suburban children attend the city's magnet schools.

The magnet school programme - which injected extra money for teachers and for equipment and new courses - appears to have had an effect on the elementary school pupils. Their test scores have improved. But the scores for high- school pupils have stayed below national averages.

"That shows we need more time," said Calvin Williford, a spokesman for the Kansas City school district. Children at the elementary level entered schools that had ceased to be segregated by race, he said. They had reaped the benefits.

But many of the high-school students went to segregated schools, and they did not have the same chances.

This particular case has been rumbling through the court system for 18 years. Back in 1977, Missouri state and the school district were found to be violating the rights of black children by failing to eliminate the vestiges of segregation. Ever since then, the state and the school district have been trying to find ways to improve things.

However, after last week's ruling, it is difficult to see how the magnet programme can be sustained. The district cannot afford to keep the programme alive without the substantial contributions from the state, now running at around Pounds 125 million a year.

Arthur A Benson, a lawyer for the school district, said he hoped the state would not give up on the city's schools.

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Lucy Hodges

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