HED:Ayers appeal rejected

AUTHOR: BOBBY

HED:Ayers appeal rejected

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

A U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday means Mississippi’s focus will move toward improving its eight public universities and away from court.

That’s the verdict state leaders gave after learning the court decided against hearing the appeal of the 23-year-old Ayers college desegregation case.

Leaders said they hope the ruling will mean the costly case has come to an end and the state now can work to carry out U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers’ 1995 order intended to desegregate the state’s universities.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has decided the appeal,” said Pamela Meyer, assistant commissioner for public affairs and development for the state Institutions of Higher Learning. “The (College) Board is looking forward to moving ahead.”

Lawmaker reaction

The case originated in 1975 when the late Jake Ayers filed suit against the state, saying Mississippi’s higher education system discriminated against black students.

Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, said millions of dollars have been spent in legal fees in the case that has wound its way through the federal court system.

Tuesday’s decision was the second time the case has been appealed to the nation’s highest court.

“I hope we can finally get this case behind us and move toward the future,” said Rep. Warner McBride, D-Courtland.

Without comment, the nation’s highest court refused to hear an appeal from a group of black plaintiffs, who said that Mississippi’s admission standards and funding formula discriminate against black students.

“Mississippi, by not dismantling its structure that maintains its dual system, is continuing not only to segregate … but is also discriminating by discouraging the less-favored races from attending college,” the appeal said, according to an Associated Press article.

The appeal marked the second time the group of black plaintiffs carried their case to the Supreme Court.

In 1992, the Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs that Mississippi’s university system was segregated. The high court sent the case back to Biggers in the Northern District of Mississippi with instructions to remedy the segregation.

In 1995, after months of testimony in the Oxford federal courthouse, Biggers formulated his plan to remedy the segregation. But the plaintiffs disagreed with portions of Biggers’ ruling, such as raising the admission standards for all students and maintaining the old funding formula.

In his ruling, Biggers said the lower admission standards at the three historically black schools – Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley – helped perpetuate that segregation.

Biggers created uniform admission standards for all universities, but placed less emphasis on the ACT college entrance exam, which some people argued was discriminatory. The new standards place a greater emphasis on the students’ high school work.

Biggers also ordered the state to establish summer remedial programs for students who failed to meet the admission standards. Students who successfully complete the remedial program can be admitted on probationary status.

Funding debate

On the issue of funding, previous courts have ruled that Mississippi’s formula for disbursing money to the universities is based on enrollment and programs offered and was not discriminatory.

By not ruling on the issue, the Supreme Court did not disagree with past rulings on the funding formula.

While the funding formula might not have changed, Biggers’ 1995 ruling does require the state to spend a substantial amount of money on the historically black schools.

Thus far the Legislature has committed $39.1 million to carry out Biggers’ order.

That figure includes $15 million for endowments to create programs to attract white students to Mississippi Valley, Alcorn and Jackson State and $15 million for new buildings at Jackson State.

Biggers ordered various new programs created at Jackson State and Alcorn.

Meyer of the Institutions of Higher Learning said the College Board is requesting an additional $12.9 million in Ayers-related funds during the current legislative session.

The funds will be used for new programs at the historically black schools and to operate a monitoring committee, one created by Biggers to ensure that Mississippi carries out the desegregation order.

College Board action

The College Board is completing a court-ordered study of what needs to be done next to meet the desegregation order.

Frazier said he considered Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling “a golden opportunity for the Legislature to show leadership and move forward with an effort to provide additional funds to carry out Judge Biggers’ mandate.”

He said now that the Supreme Court has spoken, the state and the plaintiffs need to sit down and discuss what can be done to make all of Mississippi’s universities viable options for both black and white students.

Mark Henry, Gov. Kirk Fordice’s chief counsel, also praised the decision.

“The governor always has maintained that less money should be spent on litigation and more on education for our colleges and universities,” Henry said. “To that extent, it was a good ruling.”

House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo, agreed that now that the court procedures are out of the way the state could focus on carrying out Biggers’ ruling.

“I hope this brings some finality to this long-standing case,” Ford said.