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Illinois Case Tests Authority of State

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Springfield, Ill--In a case with potentially far-reaching ramifications, state authority to order racial desegregation is being tested before the Illinois Supreme Court.

The high court is expected to rule soon on the State Board of Education's appeals of two appellate-court decisions that struck down state desegregation guidelines. The regulations require, among other things, that no school have a minority enrollment that varies proportionally from the districtwide minority population by more than 15 percent.

In separate 2-to-1 decisions, appellate courts in two Northern Illinois districts ruled in Aurora East Public School District 131 v. Joseph M. Cronin and Chicago Heights Public School District 170 v. The Illinois State Board of Education that state regulations adopted to enforce desegregation went beyond the statutory authority granted the board.

The consolidated appeals that are pending before the supreme court are being watched across the nation for hints on how states can proceed on desegregation in light of moves at the federal level to diminish U.S. involvement in enforcing the desegregation of schools.

The legal dispute began in 1976 after the state superintendent found that three of the Aurora East district's 11 elementary schools violated state desegregation standards. The school board went to court to challenge the superintendent's authority over racial balance in the schools.

The Chicago Heights District followed with litigation a year later, charging that the state's rules forced the system to bus students in violation of the state school code.

At stake are rules--approved by the state board in 1976--that have stirred controversy in dozens of Illinois school districts. Most school systems have worked to comply with the stringent regulations, but others have resisted--most notably the Chicago school district, which went to the brink of being placed on probation by the state board three years ago before the Justice Department stepped in to take over the case.

First Major Setback

The state board suffered its first major setback in January 1981, when the Second District Appellate Court upheld a Kane County circuit judge's decision that voided the desegregation rules and permanently barred their enforcement in the Aurora East district.

The appellate court acknowledged that the state board possessed the authority to establish regulations enforcing what is known as the Armstrong Act--a 1963 amendment to the school code requiring local school boards to revise existing boundaries or to create new ones "in a manner which will take into consideration the prevention of segregation and the elimination of separation of children in public schools because of color, race, or nationality."

A subsequent revision of the school code, known as the Moore Amendment, prohibited the state superintendent from requiring any local district to bus students to achieve a racial balance.

Under the regulations, local school districts must report annually to the state education agency the racial makeup of the student population in the district and at each school.

The state superintendent reviews the reports to determine whether the minority enrollment in any school varies proportionally more than 15 percent from the districtwide minority enrollment.

Districts that do not conform to the standard must submit within 90 days a plan detailing actions that will be taken to desegregate the schools, including a timetable for its completion.

The state board has argued that the 15-percent guideline is simply the starting point for determining when a school is not complying with state rules and thus acts as a trigger setting in motion local plans to eliminate racial imbalances.

But the appellate-court majority agreed with the finding of the lower court that the 15-percent rule was improperly used as a controlling basis for compliance with the state regulations; it set an arbitrary quota for local districts to meet that was not required by the Armstrong Act, the judges said.

The appellate majority also said that the state's rules usurped local discretion in seeking remedies for segregation and that they conflicted with the Moore Amendment, because the mandatory transfer of students was sometimes the only remedy available for complying with the state rules on racial balance.

It also upheld the trial court's decision that the board's enforcement mechanism--withholding federal funds from districts that fail to comply with the rules--exceeded the state agency's authority.

And finally, the court rejected the state board's claim that Aurora East operated a segregated school system because minorities make up 70-to-80 percent of the enrollment at some schools, while the district as a whole has a 41-percent minority population.

"We find that the state board's arguments in support of its contention are not based upon the requirements of the Armstrong Act," Justice Lloyd A. VanDeusen wrote for the majority. "Rather, the state board reads into the Armstrong Act the significantly more demanding requirements it has imposed upon Aurora by the rules which we have determined to be invalid."

'Minimum Amount of Activity'

State law, the majority concluded, "does not require that a local school board conduct a minimum amount of activity or that its activity lead to a minimally acceptable result."

The fact that Aurora administrators considered racial balance in establishing new school boundaries in 1968, 1971, and 1977 was enough to satisfy the dictates of the Armstrong Act, the court held.

In June of last year, the First District Appellate Court, adopting the reasoning of the second district panel, also voided the desegregation rules in the Chicago Heights case.

In its appeals, the state board has argued that the appellate courts misinterpreted both the Armstrong Act and the rules designed to implement that law.

The board's brief to the high court noted that 50 school districts throughout Illinois with a combined enrollment of more than one million pupils, half of whom are members of minority groups, have been subject to state-board action under the rules.

The board contends that its rules "have been the most effective means of furthering the legislative policy," mandated by the Armstrong Act and sanctioned by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1968, "that de facto segregation in the public schools of this state be eliminated to the fullest extent possible."

The board also contends that the rules are important for ensuring that the state itself is not accused of assisting in the segregation of students in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The appellate courts' decisions, the board has argued, "would render the Armstrong Act meaningless and its salutary goals unattainable. These decisions would sanction local districts' failure to take any action to prevent segregation, so long as they 'think about' race, and would render the state board powerless to ensure that local districts conform with the Armstrong Act."

'Paramount Consideration'

The lower courts' rulings, the board said, contradict the supreme court's earlier decision upholding the constitutionality of the Armstrong Act. That holding, said the board, affirmed the ruling of a trial court that "racial imbalance is a paramount consideration in drawing school attendance boundaries" and outweighs other factors such as classroom size, distances to school, and traffic hazards.

The board also has contended that its rules do not conflict with the anti-busing Moore Amendment. Because the 15-percent rule is not an absolute standard, the board argues, it does not follow that busing would be necessary to comply with desegregation dictates.

Moreover, the board said, "busing is conspicuously omitted from the list of methods which are 'educationally sound and administratively and economically feasible' that local districts are obliged to consider and employ in formulating plans."

The board also defended its authority to withhold federal funds from districts that do not meet the desegregation rules.

Citing previous high-court rulings and state and federal law, the board contended that it is not only empowered but required to refuse federal funds for any district which maintains segregated facilities.

And finally, the board reiterated its position that Aurora East did operate a segregated system for many elementary-school children.

"The record is replete with testimony that personnel employed by Aurora East 'thought about' race--for example, by maintaining pin maps showing the race of students by block and assigned school," the board said.

"But there was virtually no evidence of any affirmative action to improve the racial balance in the district."

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