Three Billion Dollar Taj Mahals
 
by D. J. Connolly

 

The story of the Cleveland consent decree makes a couple of things fairly clear.  A federal court's seizure of local schools can cause them to get a great deal worse.   It can also put a lot of public money into play.  However, the Cleveland case does not show all the legal tricks.  We can observe one or two others by looking at the Kansas City case.  The story of the Kansas City case, curiously enough, begins in Detroit. [1]

In 1973, the Supreme Court heard the case of Millikan v. Bradley.  It involved public school busing in the Detroit area.  The City's schools couldn't be integrated because most of the white families had voted with their feet to avoid forced busing.  So some "civil-rights" lawyers scrounged up a plaintiff or two and went to a federal judge. [2]

The "civil rights" lawyers argued more or less along the following lines.  Your honor, you can't avoid your duty to the Constitution.  You've got to bus the white kids back into Detroit, and bus the black kids into their towns.  What the heck; we're only talking thirty or forty miles.  The judge liked the idea; and he so ruled.

The decision was appealed.  After a few years, the case reached the Supreme Court.  By 1973, Richard Nixon had appointed a few justices who didn't share the Warren Court's fondness for forced busing.  They weren't anxious to abandon earlier Court positions, but they didn't want to extend them any further.  Therefore, only a small majority of Warren Court holdovers could be expected to sustain the district court.  Part of that majority got cold feet.

So far, forced busing orders had damaged mainly Blacks and working class Whites, folks who were not likely to create much of a threat to the Supreme Court.  However, now the lower court judges were getting ready to mount a new attack on tens-of-millions of suburban Whites.  That entailed a new and scary level of judicial risk.

In 1973, public opinion strongly opposed forced busing.  Suburban Whites existed in very large numbers and they had high voter turnout rates.  Some of them had already left the cities to escape the control of lawless judges.  Now the lower courts were coming after them.  This time they might fight; they might elect radicals who would force the Supreme Court to obey the Constitution.

Only four of the nine justices were willing to take that risk.  In early 1974, the Court decided 5-4 to overturn the order of the district court judge in Detroit.  The Supreme Court needed to give a reason; so it said that no one had proved the suburban districts shared the blame for Detroit's segregated schools.  Of course this reason was only a pretext.  As we saw in Cleveland, federal judges had ordered states to pay for local busing programs.  They had said that local public school districts are creatures of the state.  If they were guilty of causing segregation, the state was guilty too; it was guilty through neglect. [3]

The Court was expected to use that same logic, in Millikan v. Bradley, to force the State of Michigan to rearrange school districts.  According to that logic, Michigan shared the blame for the segregation in Detroit.  So the entire state was fair game for a judge-imposed remedy.  In this case, the Supreme Court backed off from the usual logic.  Its real reason was fear of a bloody nose.  "We the People" take a lot of abuse from federal judges, but you can only push us so far. [4]

We now come to Kansas City.  Before long a federal judge in Missouri, named Russell Clark, had a chance to deal with a case very similar to the one in Detroit.  There were so few Whites left in Kansas City that all its public schools had become segregated.  About 1977, "civil-rights" lawyers sued in Judge Clark's court.  They wanted him to order the State of Missouri to merge the Kansas City district with the suburban districts.  Russell had to refuse; the Supreme Court had ruled that out by its Detroit precedent.

But then somebody thought of a new scheme; the judge could reverse white flight by blowing really big bucks on the Kansas City schools.  Judge Clark went along with that; he ordered the people of Kansas City to double the property tax; he also ordered a very big hit on the state treasury.  If Russell spent most of the money in Missouri on the Kansas City schools the folks out in the suburbs would have to play ball.  If they still refused to come back, at least the local black kids would be well educated.  The public school bureaucrats had assured Russell that the only problem with inner city schools was lack of money.  The judge took their word for it. [5]

Russell gave the public education bureaucrats a blank check; between 1985 and 1995 they blew an extra $1.6 billion in a school district with only 36,000 students.  That's about $45,000 per student beyond what the district had already been spending.  In one year, Kansas City, with 9 percent of the state's public school students, got 44 percent of state school funding.  By 1998, the State of Missouri had spent about $3 billion for "schools that are Taj Mahals" . . . but also "about half-empty." [5]

Judge Clark was acting on a well-known principle taught by Machiavelli who had advised his pupils to do good, whenever they could, with other peoples' money. [6]

The Supreme Court approved Russell's plan.  It was flagrantly unconstitutional; how could a tax increase be anything but a legislative function?  However, the level of risk seemed OK to the Court.  It was a lot safer than taking millions of middle class suburban kids hostage.

This probably will come as no surprise; but Russell's big bucks plan didn't work.  Hardly anybody came back from the suburbs.  And the public school bureaucrats threw all the money down various rat holes.  In early 1997, test scores for Kansas City students were still abysmal.  Dropout rates were at 55 percent and rising.  Nevertheless, Judge Clark still had faith in the bureaucrats.  He was quoted as believing that it would only take another decade or so. [7]
 

NOTES & CITATIONS

1.  The Cleveland case is described in the online essay, Forty-Six Felons on the Payroll.

2.  Millikan v. Bradley can be found on the Internet at a web site operated by Cornell University.  The case and its origins was discussed in Woodward, pages 334-337 and 415 and in Graglia, pages 241-256.

3.  Two minority opinions made this point.  See Graglia, pages 244 and 253.

4. Of course this was never explicitly stated.  The minority and majority opinions nitpicked a variety of arcane legal points but never discussed the true motives of their authors.  That's just not done.

5. Most of our information on the Kansas City case was taken from the 1996 article by Paul Ciotti.  Check the Bibliography.  I took the $3 billion for half empty Taj Mahals quote from an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 9, 1997, page 2-E.  Chris Sheridan, the writer, was quoting a "desegregation expert" from Boston University.

6.  The Machiavelli quote is from Chapter XVI of the 1889 translation.  It's exact words are: "to spend upon another's stock rather adds to than subtracts from (a Prince's) reputation; it is spending of his own that is so mortal and pernicious."

7.  The name of the case was Jenkins v. Missouri.  

 

To review publications data on works cited, check the Bibliography

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D. J. Connolly.