Administration Seeks Reversal of La. Busing Plan
Washington--In one of the Reagan Administration's strongest moves against court-ordered busing, the Justice Department has asked a federal appeals court to permit reconsideration of a one-year-old mandatory busing plan in a Louisiana school district because of "white flight" from the public schools.
The Administration, following its position favoring "racially neutral" student-attendance policies rather than mandatory student assignments, asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to postpone its scheduled hearing of an appeal of the busing plan in East Baton Rouge, La., which was ordered by a U.S. District Court judge last year at the urging of the Carter Administration.
In a brief that was filed last week, the Justice Department said its lawyers did not dispute the district court's finding that school officials had failed to eliminate the unconstitutional segregation that existed when the lawsuit, Davis v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, was originally brought by a group of black parents in 1956.
Rather, a memorandum accompanying the brief said, the Administration took issue with the "remedy"--mandatory busing--because busing had, during the 1981-82 school year, caused "large numbers of [white] parents and students to abandon the public-school system."
According to the school district, 4,000 students left the 59,000-student system last year.
"Experience has shown court-ordered transportation generally to be a failed experiment," the memorandum said. It suggested that Justice Department attorneys should be permitted to "... devise a desegregative package that will remedy the violation properly found to exist in East Baton Rouge without resort to compulsory transportation of students."
The case represents the first time the Administration has asked a court to dismantle a busing order already in effect.
The Louisiana case is, however, only the latest in a series of desegregation cases in which federal lawyers have reversed positions taken by the Carter Administration. The Reagan Administration had previously switched the government's position in desegregation lawsuits involving Chicago and Seattle.
William L. Taylor, a civil-rights lawyer here, called the Administration's move "another significant event in their efforts to weaken the position that favors school desegregation. I think they'll be repudiated by the court of appeals. If they're in favor of the right [to a desegregated education] but not a remedy, then it's a major problem."
Senator J. Bennett Johnston, the Louisiana Democrat who has urged Justice Department officials, in meetings and memoranda, to fight for an end to busing in East Baton Rouge, said he was "thrilled."
"It is going to have a tremendous impact," he said. "It promises to have an excellent chance of working because it makes perfect sense. Bus-ing is a failed experiment. It has not worked; it has caused white flight. It has not integrated the schools; it has hurt education, and it is time now for the courts to recognize that fact."
Senator Johnston said he was not sure whether meetings between federal officials and the Louisiana Congressional delegation were responsible for the department's change of position. But he said the recent Senate passage of strong anti-busing provisions in a Justice Department authorization bill, of which he was a co-sponsor, "clearly had a great deal to do with it."
The federal government first entered the Louisiana case in 1979, taking the side of black parents who pressed the court to order busing. At that time, according to the brief filed last week, 60 percent of the schools "were one-race schools and a majority of the students of both races attended one-race schools."
The school board had ordered construction of 76 new schools since 1956, of which 73 were one-race schools, the brief said.
In addition, "the board failed to employ new construction, school closings, or attendance-zone changes to further desegregation, and it utilized temporary buildings to maintain segregation," according to the document.
The school board has repeatedly contended that segregation in the East Baton Rouge schools is due to housing patterns. In the appeal currently before the Fifth Circuit, the board is asking the court to overturn the district court's finding of de jure segregation. The busing order is also being appealed by black parents, who claim that more black children than white are assigned to ride buses to school.
J. Harvie Wilkinson, the Justice Department's deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, said that the Administration "still believe[s] there can be a significant degree of desegregation without mandatory busing."
He said the Administration would emphasize a magnet-school plan "to attract parents and students of both races," along with school closings and construction, desegregation of faculty, and changes in attendance zones.
Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged that a magnet-school plan drawn up by the school board in 1980 was rejected by the district court as an ineffective remedy. But he insisted that, with the assistance of federal attorneys, "magnet schools can be an exciting possibility."
The Justice Department's move in the Louisiana case came as William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, criticized mandatory school busing in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
"After more than a decade of court-ordered busing," he said, "it cannot reasonably be disputed that the effort to desegregate through wholesale reliance on race-conscious student assignment plans has failed.
"The destruction to public education wrought by mandatory busing," he continued, "is evident in city after city: Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, Wilmington, Memphis, Denver, Los Angeles are but a few of the larger and thus more celebrated examples. Nor is it difficult to understand why. The flight from urban public schools contributes to the erosion of the municipal tax base, which in turn has a direct bearing on the growing inability of many school systems to provide a quality education to their students--whether black or white."