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Civil-Rights Panel Attacks Reagan's Policy on Busing

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Washington--The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has accused the Reagan Administration of retreating from the goal of school desegregation in both its attempts to dismantle existing student-transportation plans and its attempts to eliminate programs for the disadvantaged "by the 'back-door' approach of fiscal strangulation."

The independent fact-finding group's accusations were contained in two reports released at a press conference here last week.

"In the past few months, the Administration has shifted federal policy on civil-rights enforcement of school desegregation and has proposed to reduce substantially federal aid to education," said the commission's chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., in releasing the reports. ''School desegregation and federally funded education programs are directly linked. The statements we are releasing reflect the commission's concern that these changes signal a retreat from the nation's long-held goal of equality of educational opportunity."

Personal Disagreement

Mr. Pendleton, however, quickly noted his personal disagreement with the findings of his colleagues on the commission. He said he did not think that "reductions in federal outlays for education necessarily signal retreat" or that shifts in federal school-desegregation strategies "will lead us back to a separate-but-equal society" as alleged in the reports.

In its report on busing, the commission noted that the Administration "has continuously stated that it supports school desegregation, but it does not support one of the proven means of achieving school desegregation--transportation of students."

"To speak against busing in these circumstances is to speak against school desegregation," the commission concluded. "A right without a remedy is simply illusory."

In defending the Administration's civil-rights efforts, Mr. Pendleton countered that the voluntary school-desegregation strategies advocated by the Administration "have not been given enough time to work," adding that "it might take four or five years before we can see how successful" these alternatives to busing are. Spokesmen for the Administration were also quick last week to note their disagreement with the commission's charges.

"This Administration continues to oppose the failed social policy of forced busing, as does over 70 percent of the American public," said Anne Graham, the Education Department's assistant secretary for legislative and public affairs.

"Contrary to the commission's claims," Ms. Graham added, "total federal education budget cuts in the last two years have reduced the education budgets of the nation's public schools by only 2 cents on the dollar. The fact remains that education is predominantly a state and local responsibility."

"In city after city, we have seen the courts' preoccupation with busing drive large numbers of students from the public schools, in many instances increasing, rather than decreasing, racial isolation," said Wil-liam Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights. "The need to secure true and lasting school desegregation compels fresh and creative thought; it simply is not enough to continue to rely on a remedy whose ineffective-ness is so manifest."

In the statement accompanying its report on school desegregation, the commission sharply criticized the Justice Department's recent intervention in a lawsuit pending review before the Supreme Court involving the Nashville, Tenn., public schools' busing plan.

In that case, Metropolitan County Board of Education of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn. v. Kelly, et al., the Administration filed a ''friend-of-the-court" brief on Nov. 12 asking the Court to hear the case and to permit the dismantling of parts of the school district's 11-year-old busing plan because it has caused social and educational disruption in the community.

That move marked the first time that the Administration has asked the Supreme Court to allow the reversal of an existing pupil-transportation plan. (See Education Week, Nov. 24, 1982.)

The commission said the Justice Department's intervention in the case "directly contradicts prior Supreme Court decisions mandating school desegregation and reopens old wounds in communities that have sucessfully complied with constitutional commands."

By contending in its brief that federal courts should be allowed to weigh social, educational, and economic costs when fashioning desegregation plans, the Administration "is using the standard difficulties that must be worked out in any effective desegregation process as an excuse to abandon the goal of desegregation," the commission said.

The commission also said that the Administration's opposition to student transportation and its advocacy of voluntary desegregation strategies threatens the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed the state-imposed segregation of students by race.

"Voluntary desegregation methods tried over time have, virtually without exception, demonstrated their ineffectiveness," the commission said.

Citing a study conducted by the Institute for Southern Studies in 1979, the commissioners noted that under voluntary desegregation plans "few minority students elect to attend predominantly white schools while the [school] system remains almost entirely segregated."

"To recommend such an approach would cause reversion to rejected standards of the early 1950's," the commission said. "Such a stance raises the question of whether the nation is to go through another 28 years without ending segregation."

"That this Administration would advocate equalization of facilities at segregated schools rather than their elimination is unconscionable," the commission added.

Likewise, the commission rejected the Administration's advocacy of the expanded use of "magnet" schools in the absence of mandatory reassignment of students to attain racial balance.

"Although magnet schools may provide broad educational opportunities for students, some educational authorities have criticized their use as an 'escape route for whites assigned to predominantly black schools,"' the commission said. "Magnet schools are effective when instituted as one component of a comprehensive desegregation plan."

The commission was particularly critical of the Administration's attempts to consolidate previously categorical programs into block grants to states in its report on the Administration's fiscal 1983 budget request for the Education Department.

Budget cuts, coupled with the move toward block-grants, "virtually assure that severe program reductions will occur" at the state level, the commission said.

Programs that have produced gains for disadvantaged students in reading and mathematical skills and have assisted in desegregating the nation's school systems "will be compelled to lower their goals" if the Administration's budget request is accepted, the commission added. "A child's education will again become become the happenstance of geographical location."

Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. disagrees

with commission colleagues.

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