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Justice Outlines Voluntary Plan To End Busing in Baton Rouge

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Correspondent Greg Garland in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.

Washington--The Justice Department has told a federal judge in Louisiana that a two-year-old mandatory-busing plan has resulted in significant "white flight" from the East Baton Rouge Parish public schools and should be replaced with a system relying totally on voluntary student transfers.

The department's civil-rights division expressed that opinion on Dec. 11, in offering an alternative desegregation plan for the city's schools to U.S. District Judge John V. Parker.

Last August, the department asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to delay its review of Judge Parker's student-transportation order in the lawsuit, Davis v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, so its attorneys could develop the alternative plan.

That act marked the first time that the Reagan Administration asked a federal court to consider the dismantling of a busing order already in effect. Last month, the department, in a move that was sharply criticized by the U.S. Commission on Civil rights, asked the Supreme Court to consider similar action in a desegregation suit involving the Nashville, Tenn., public schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 24, 1982.)

The Administration's alternative proposal for the East Baton Rouge schools was drafted by Christine H. Rossell, a school-desegregation consultant and professor of political science at Boston University.

Ms. Rossell's plan calls for the closing of two elementary schools in predominantly black neighborhoods and the creation of 14 magnet-school programs--seven at elementary schools, three at middle schools, and four at high schools--in order to promote integration in the school district.

Magnet schools to be located in white neighborhoods under the plan would offer a traditional, fundamental curriculum that is "designed to appeal largely to working-class black parents." The schools located in black neighborhoods, on the other hand, would include "Montessori schools and team-learning programs" most likely to appeal to "liberal" and "higher-social-class" white parents.

The magnet programs would feature instruction in: computers, mathematics, and science; language and foreign culture; music and art; and technical and vocational skills. In addition, two of the school district's elementary schools would be converted to "extended-day" centers for the children of working parents.

Reassigns Principals

The plan also calls for the assignment of black principals to the new magnet schools created in white neighborhoods, and white principals in black neighborhoods, in order to "minimize the racial identifiability of the schools and to stimulate 'non-resident' race enrollment" in them.

"The constitutional mandate to dismantle dual school systems hardly requires federal courts to preside over the demise of local systems of public education," said William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, in a statement accompanying the plan.

If "white flight" were allowed to continue in the district as a result of mandatory busing, Mr. Reynolds added, confidence in the school system would decline, raising the likelihood that the East Baton Rouge schools would become "the preserve of the disadvantaged of both races."

Judge Parker, commenting for the first time on the alternative plan late last week, indicated that he is willing to modify his busing order but will have to be convinced that all parties to the suit agree that the changes are necessary and that they will work.

"It is the court's view that what the East Baton Rouge Parish school system needs at the moment is a period of stability and certainty, not additional reassignment of large numbers of students," the judge said in written comments.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the 26-year-old lawsuit were quick to condemn the proposal, claiming that voluntary desegregation measures cannot work in the absence of mandatory student reassignment.

Theodore Shaw, an attorney for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the proposal "atrocious," adding that his organization would fight against it "until the sun stops shining."

"It looks like the standard Reagan segregationist manifesto to me," said Robert Williams, an attorney for the Baton Rouge branch of the naacp legal defense fund. "It's horrendous. It doesn't speak well of our government."

The department's decision to award Ms. Rossell the contract to develop the plan took some by surprise because she had previously supported busing for desegregation.

In a recent interview, Ms. Rossell said her comments represented general conclusions based on research data available at the time. She said she thinks voluntary desegregation in East Baton Rouge Parish has an excellent chance for success.

The primary cost of the existing busing order, according to the department, has been substantial white-enrollment losses in every grade level in the school system. According to Ms. Rossell's report, since 1979 the school system has lost approximately 4,600 white students as a result of desegregation activity.

Moreover, contrary to the experience of other school districts undergoing desegregation, white-enrollment losses at the elementary level in East Baton Rouge were greater in the year after mandatory busing began than they were during the first year that the desegregation order went into effect, the department's plan added.

"A student exodus of this magnitude plainly detracts from the task of school desegregation and raises disturbing implications for educational quality in the school system," the document said.

The department acknowledged that, even under its most optimistic projections, the voluntary desegregation plan, in the short run, would increase the number of racially identifiable schools in the district as compared to the existing plan. But over time, it continued, the alternative plan "should become more desegregative than the court's plan."

"There is, in candor, no guarantee" that the alternative plan will succeed, the department conceded. "A critical factor in the plan's effectiveness will be the degree of support provided by the school board. ... Accordingly, absent clear and convincing evidence of school-board commitment, we see no reason for the court to order this alternative into effect."

The school board's reaction to the plan has been mixed, with all three black members of the 12-member panel critical of the proposal. Six of the board's members are new, having been elected only last month. The newly constituted board will hold its first meeting on Jan. 6.

"It puts us back to square one, where we were before 1980," said Press Robinson, a member of the board. "It won't do a thing. Voluntary methods will not desegregate this school system."

"I feel that Baton Rouge will be behind the school system if we come up with something like this," countered Sarah E. Prescott, one of the board members who welcomed the new proposal. "This will please a lot of parents."

Judge Parker has asked the school board, federal attorneys, and attorneys for the plaintiffs to meet with him on Jan. 7, the day after the school board's first meeting, to discuss the new proposal.

In a related development, the U.S. House of Representatives voted earlier this month to prohibit the Justice Department from spending money that would require mandatory transportation of students to schools outside their neighborhoods.

The measure, sponsored by Representative James M. Collins, Republican of Texas, was offered as an amendment to the appropriations bill for the Justice, Commerce, and State Departments and approved on Dec. 9. Representative Collins sponsored, and the House approved, an identical amendment to last year's appropriations bill for the departments, but the bill never passed. A similar measure won Congressional approval in 1979 but was vetoed.

Opponents of the amendment unsuccessfully argued that the measure wasn't necessary because the Administration has already adopted a policy against pursuing busing orders. They also contended that opposition to the amendment in the Senate would narrow the chances that the appropriations bill will win that chamber's approval during the current lame-duck session.

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