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Courts and Schools

THE federal district and appellate courts that ordered an overhaul of the Kansas City public schools had in mind making them so good that they'd lure white students from the suburbs.

This approach to desegregation was rebuked last week by the US Supreme Court. But the lower federal courts' efforts to fix Kansas City's schools fit into a larger picture than racial imbalance in one city's classrooms.

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Across the country, poor, often urban, school districts face ingrained problems - starting with sparse funding sources, but extending to violence, deteriorating buildings, and high dropout rates.

The education offered in those districts is substandard, particularly when contrasted to that in surrounding, more wealthy communities. And the recipients of that education are typically poor and nonwhite. Redressing this inequity demands large shifts in resources, not unlike those required of the State of Missouri, which was directed by the courts to supply much of the $1.5 billion spent so far for magnet schools in Kansas City.

It's not the federal bench, however, but state courts that are now likely to pursue such remedies in the future. While the federal desegregation mandate may be receding, a drive at the state level toward greater equity in school funding is accelerating.

Since 1989, 12 state supreme courts have ruled on the constitutionality of existing school-finance systems. In Texas, Massachusetts, and Kentucky, among others, the courts found these systems in violation of state constitutions that mandate a certain level of educational quality for all students. Many states are considering ways of adjusting property tax collection to send more funds to poorer areas, whether urban or rural.

This process will meet strong resistance. Property taxes and local control of schools are matters of heart and pocketbook. But so is fairness, especially when the economic and intellectual potential of all Americans is put on the nation's balance sheet.

Desegregation orders have been one means of forcing an expansion of educational opportunity. Their impact may be ebbing. The move toward school-finance reform is another, and perhaps even more far-reaching, assault on deficient schooling.

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