WASHINGTON -- Splitting 5-4, the Supreme Court sharply cut back yesterday on the power of federal judges to help inner-city schools overcome racial segregation by drawing up costly programs that might entice white students to come in from the suburbs.
Reaching beyond city limits to attract students is an excessive use of federal court power in desegregation cases, even when a judge does not order suburban students to come to town but merely invites them with new programs in city schools, the court majority said.
The ruling reflected the court's impatience with continued court supervision of once-segregated school districts, and stressed anew the lack of power of judges to command city-suburban solutions to city segregation problems.
The court apparently had agreed last September to rule on only a few details of the latest phase in the 18-year history of court-ordered desegregation of the public schools in Kansas City, Mo. But when the ruling emerged yesterday, the majority had expanded the case to cover basic questions about federal judges' authority.
For the Kansas City schools, the decision could scuttle some of the most ambitious parts of a desegregation order that has become the most costly in history: a court-devised plan, costing $200 million a year, that seeks to bring high-quality education to all the Missouri city's schools. The city schools spend about $9,400 a year per pupil, compared with about $5,900 in the surrounding suburbs.
The programs are far beyond the city schools' own budget, so the state of Missouri has been under orders to pay much of the cost.
Forty-one years after racial segregation officially ended in Missouri, more than 68 percent of the students in the city's schools are black. Federal courts thus decided that, if those schools ever were to be integrated, white students must have reasons to come in from the suburbs, and "white flight" from city schools had to be ended and reversed.
When the suburbs themselves have not engaged in unconstitutional racial segregation, and segregation has been confined solely within the city, a federal judge's power to oversee city desegregation stops at the city limits, the court said in an opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, joined in the ruling but wrote separately to condemn many of the lower courts' desegregation decisions since the original desegregation ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.
The Supreme Court itself, he said, has allowed lower courts to issue "extraordinary remedies" for past school segregation.
Using that sweeping authority, Justice Thomas said, lower-court judges have been assuming wrongly that black students in public schools are inferior "and that blacks cannot succeed without the benefit of the company of whites."
The Kansas City case reached the justices as a test of court orders to raise the pay of virtually all school district employees, and to continue to offer high-quality education programs until student test scores reached a national average.
Both those orders, the Supreme Court majority said, were the result of the lower courts' view that the city schools had to be made attractive to white suburban students. The justices ordered the lower courts to reconsider both. But they suggested that the high-quality education program perhaps should be ended altogether.