JEFFERSON CITY - For two decades the federal courts have controlled the St. Louis and Kansas City public schools and ordered the state to pay more than $3.2 billion to rectify the effects of unequal education between black and white students.
The legislature on Friday gave final approval to a bill proponents hope could end the state's court-ordered payments to St. Louis.
"I believe by doing this, we will help foster a settlement," said Rep. Steve Stoll, D-Festus, sponsor of the bill in the House. "We will show the state will act responsibly if the federal courts get out of the schools."
But critics said it was impossible to guarantee the case would be settled and the court wouldn't tell the state it had to keep paying.
"This is deseg lite," said Rep. John Loudon, R-Ballwin.
Rep. Mary Bland, D-Kansas City, voted against the bill because a provision had been dropped from an earlier version that guaranteed Kansas City would get its money even if the St. Louis case continued. The lawsuit in Kansas City has been settled, and payments there will end in June 1999.
"If you so adamantly believe St. Louis is going to settle, what's your risk," she said.
Sweeteners were added to the bill throughout each step the legislative process to entice lawmakers to sign on.
Rural legislators complained their districts had been given short shrift, and money was added for transportation.
Critics of the two school districts said there was little innovation, so a provision allowing charter schools was included.
The St. Louis school board was criticized as unaccountable for its district's results. Now the board will have 7 members instead of 12, who will serve four years instead of six. To appease some of the city's delegation members who argued part of the problem is too many board members come from the same area, members will run by subdistrict instead of at-large.
Other lawmakers wanted St. Louis to have to shoulder more of the costs to educate its students. Residents will have to vote whether to raise their property taxes or local sales tax.
Voters approved a constitutional amendment last month that allows the Kansas City school board to keep the levy there at its current level.
Some legislators said desegregation hasn't worked, and that the emphasis should switch to neighborhood schools.
"Instead of talking about quality education, we talked about quotas," said Rep. Carson Ross, R-Blue Springs.
"I was bussed past a white school to go to a black school," said Ross, a black lawmaker who grew up in Arkansas. "It was wrong then and it's wrong today."
About 13,000 St. Louis students are now voluntarily enrolled at suburban schools. The bill keeps this voluntary transfer program, but allows the receiving districts to vote in six years whether they want to continue receiving the students.
But the final outcome of all the wheeling and dealing, compromising and controversy still hinges on the judge in the St. Louis case signing off on the plan.
Lawyers for the NAACP, a party to the St. Louis lawsuit, have indicated they will begin negotiations immediately to settle the case.
The bill sets a deadline of March 1999 for the case to be settled. If it is not, payments will continue to be sent to the district.
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