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Children Left Behind

Once again, adults try to end Kansas City's desegregation case.


Kansas City, Missouri's $2 billion school-desegregation case is presumably all about kids. But a mere three teens showed up last week to listen to testimony in what could have been the final hearing in the 26-year-old suit. They'd recently been suspended from area schools. Their tutor, former school board member Lee Barnes, who has been teaching them about the case, brought them downtown to see some civil rights justice in action. Attired in baggy T-shirts and jeans, they stuck around for a little less than an hour.

In the hallway of downtown's Charles Evans Whittaker Federal Courthouse, fifteen-year-old Kelvin Draper paused to reflect on what he had seen and learned. "Races shouldn't be, like, separated and stuff," he said.

The sterile court proceedings seemed as far removed from a Kansas City classroom as an accounting firm in Beijing. Throughout the week, Superintendent Bernard Taylor and board members Joel Pelofsky and David Smith occasionally nodded off as a parade of education bureaucrats and scholars droned on about "job-embedded professional development," "normalized curve equivalents" and the "triangulation of data." During a recess, Taylor gazed out a window with a view across the southeastern expanse of the city and said, "I'm looking forward to this being over so we can get back to reality."

During another break, Pelofsky observed, "The one question you will not hear anyone ask at this hearing is: So what?

"We're still segregated," he went on to explain. "And we don't seem to have accomplished much in terms of the education mission."

But then again, education and segregation aren't the real reasons the case has dragged on for so long. The real reasons are money and power.

By nearly all accounts, the case should have ended six years ago. But back then, the school district couldn't afford to let go of its court-ordered financing.

The beginning of the end came in 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court all but destroyed the case -- and a half-century of desegregation efforts in the nation -- by shooting down Kansas City's costly scheme to lure white students from across the metro area to spectacular inner-city "magnet" schools. By that time, however, the school district was utterly dependent on money from a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had allowed U.S. District Judge Russell Clark to raise taxes without voter approval. If the case had gone away suddenly, the gift of "King Clark," as some locals have referred to him, would have vanished, too. And Kansas City's schools would have fallen into financial ruin.

In 1996 the district argued that, on the one hand, it had done all it could to desegregate its classrooms -- which are now more segregated than they were when the case was filed. On the other hand, it argued that it had not done enough to reduce the academic achievement gap between black and white students, as it is defined by standardized tests.

Clark approved of this "awkward posture" in March 1997, when he let the case proceed based on the uneven test scores -- thus maintaining the cash flow.

Then, in 1999, Missouri voters agreed to allow the school district to keep its higher tax in place -- no matter what happened to the case.

That same year, Clark's replacement, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple, shocked everyone by dismissing the case without a hearing. Afterward, plaintiffs' attorney Arthur A. Benson II offered a settlement to the district, which then-Superintendent Benjamin Demps rejected in a power play that backfired when Whipple's decision was overturned on appeal.

Now, in the midst of budget crises, district officials see the suit as more burden than boon. Kansas City's school system has become a lawyer-heavy bureaucracy, in which millions of tax dollars and thousands of staff hours that might otherwise boost educational efforts have instead gone toward attorneys and litigious hoop-jumping.

For last week's hearing, district officials had just two big obstacles left to clear. First, they had to show that they'd come up with a plan to help teachers get better at teaching (thus the "job-embedded professional development"). Then they had to prove that they had narrowed the black-white achievement gap (thus all the chatter about "normalized curve equivalents" and the "triangulation of data").

For the first, they used plaintiffs' attorney Arthur A. Benson II's own experts (whom he's used for years but chose not to call to the stand this time) to demonstrate that, with its teacher-improvement scheme, Kansas City is leading the hottest trend in American education.

To prove triumph over the second challenge, the district's lawyers launched a bizarre installment of this region's storied "border war" -- with an education economist from the University of Missouri squaring off against his counterpart from the University of Kansas. The bespectacled pair clashed over the deceptively simple math problem Judge Clark (who died last month) had assigned the district in his 1997 order. Using statistical results from a test that Kansas City kids no longer take, Clark had determined that the lingering effects of legally enforced segregation would be eliminated if the black-white achievement gap were reduced by 13 percent.

The district's number cruncher -- Michael Podgursky of MU -- testified that he had taken results from the long-answer tests the district now hands out to kids and transformed them into results from outdated multiple-choice tests. He had arranged and rearranged the numbers in a variety of ways, but the same answer always came back: Kansas City had fulfilled Clark's mandate.

Of course, Benson challenged Podgursky's conclusions. During cross-examination, the lawyer tried to convey the problem in layman's terms by comparing the district's test-score chasm to the different win-loss records between the then-top-ranked Kansas City Royals and fourth-place St. Louis Cardinals. The season is not yet over, he explained -- it's premature to declare a first-place finisher.

Podgursky flashed a wary grin and played along for minute or so before saying, "Your analogy about baseball is flawed."

To explain the difference, the professor commenced another monologue about numbers, after which U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple quipped, "I thought he was going to say that the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals aren't being overseen by a cadre of lawyers."

Then Benson's hired gun -- KU's John Poggio -- took the stand and, under Benson's questioning, began brutally lambasting Podgursky's work. He sounded convincing until the district's top outside lawyer, Pat Brannan of the Washington, D.C., powerhouse Hogan & Hartson, stood up and berated him with a litany of withering questions.

Brannan repeatedly backed the scholar into corners, using earlier reports and depositions to point out contradictions in his testimony. At times she seemed as skilled a statistician as he, methodically picking apart his findings until they seemed to lose nearly all their significance.

At one point, Poggio raised his voice, and his face grew red. Sitting in the audience, board member Duane Kelly balled his fist and threw a stick-it-to-'em jab.

Afterward, Superintendent Taylor smiled at Brannan and said, "I've never seen this side of you before."

"It's the side I like best," she replied.

But it wasn't until Taylor himself took the stand on Thursday, the final day of the hearing, that testimony leaned toward common sense.

Taylor didn't downplay the problems that had inspired the desegregation case to begin with. But he lamented how the suit had outgrown its usefulness, how it's now a hindrance to school administrators who seek to help black kids like Kelvin Draper obtain an education equal to that of their peers from the suburbs.

"We need the opportunity, we have earned the opportunity, we deserve the opportunity to control our own destiny," he said.

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