Commentary

Cautious 'Pragmatism' in Chicago Plan

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On January 6, U.S. District Court Judge Milton I. Shadur approved a Chicago school-desegregation plan, developed by the city's board of education and endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice, that relies almost exclusively upon voluntary measures--such as the transfer of students into magnet schools. Does the ruling signal a retreat by the federal courts in school desegregation? Not really. It reflects instead a new pragmatic willingness to allow public-education authorities to demonstrate their capacity to desegregate without close court supervision and with a minimal use of mandatory reassignments.

How to eliminate "dual school systems" with "identifiably one-race schools" may be at issue; whether to do so is not. Three aspects of Judge Shadur's ruling suggest this underlying commitment to the goal of desegregating the Chicago schools.

First, while he ruled that negotiations between the plaintiffs and the defendant school authorities about the nature of an acceptable desegregation plan--or, by implication, modification of a plan--are appropriate and to be encouraged, Judge Shadur reserved for the court an independent and final obligation to ensure that the constitutional rights of minority children are protected. (U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who recently announced his decision to limit his role in the Boston desegregation suit, has likewise made it clear that he will retain final jurisdiction over any modifications in the student-assignment plan in that city.)

Second, although the Chicago desegregation plan includes extensive educational components, affecting hundreds of schools, the issues for resolution by the court center on student assignment and desegregation. Judge Shadur points out that the court's function "is to judge constitutionality, not educational quality as such (more precisely, its role in dealing with the quality of education is limited to assuring that the constitutional mandate of equal education has been met)."

Third, the Chicago plan is based primarily upon measures to attract students to seek voluntary transfers that result in the desegregation of schools that receive and send students. Judge Shadur quotes with apparent approval the Chicago Board of Education's contention that "desegregation techniques which are not compulsory on children are the most effective and most practicable in achieving stable desegregation."

He also makes it clear, however, that the school system will have to demonstrate that these voluntary measures work to desegregate all predominantly white schools in Chicago, and to provide desegregated schooling to many minority students.

In expressing this concern for the fulfillment of the promise of voluntary-desegregation measures, Judge Shadur stands in the line of federal-court rulings since the 1968 Green v. County School Board of New Kent County case, in which a "freedom-of-choice" plan allowing students to choose their schools was found constitutional only to the extent that it worked to achieve conversion to "a unitary, nonracial school system." The Supreme Court found in that case that "the burden on a school board today is to come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work, and promises realistically to work now." Judge Shadur is echoing this emphasis on the "promise" in his language approving the Chicago plan.

It is clear that the court's approval of the Chicago plan is tentative and in a sense probationary, and there is specific provision in the plan for mandatory measures if the voluntary measures fail to produce the intended results.

Can voluntary transfers contribute significantly to desegregation in a large urban-school system?

Considerations of scale and distance make it extremely unlikely that the new Chicago plan can achieve a school system in which every school is desegregated, with an enrollment generally reflecting system-wide enrollments.

On the other hand, there is some merit to the argument that no other desegregation approach would achieve such a result, given the scale of the school system and the racial proportions of its enrollment.

Magnet schools do have real virtues, not the least of which is the opportunity to create truly outstanding urban schools that must demonstrate their excellence in an open market. Presently, for example, there are more than 50 magnet schools in Massachusetts, supported by $4 million in state aid.

One drawback of magnet schools, however, is the temptation to organize such schools for the most academically gifted students, and thereby to relegate the other schools to a second-class status. The Decatur school in Chicago has a 32.2-percent black enrollment, while blacks represent 60.7 percent of the city's total enrollment. Boston Latin school as a 15.5-percent black enrollment, compared to 50.3 percent citywide. Magnet schools also tend to draw white students from schools that are racially mixed, resulting in the integration of the magnet school at the expense of the already racially mixed school.

Magnet schools are not the only form of voluntary desegregation. Chicago has a "permissive transfer" program, for example, that encourages students to transfer from designated schools to other designated schools without the incentive of specific magnet-school designation.

One model of semi-voluntary desegregation has recently been developed and implemented in Cambridge, Mass.; it offers real promise for other small cities and perhaps for racially diverse sections of large cities like Chicago.

Essentially, what Cambridge has done is to abolish geographical-attendance districts for its K-8 schools, while guaranteeing to every student currently enrolled the opportunity to complete his or her education at the school presently attended. In this way, maximum stability and continuity of education is assured for every student, unless the student seeks a voluntary transfer that will enhance desegregation.

New students entering the system, either at the primary level or in a higher grade, are given a choice of schools, which they rank in order of preference. Some of these schools have specific "magnet" features, others do not. All school assignments are then made centrally, with an effort to accommodate parent preferences consistent with desegregation guidelines. Other factors taken into account include keeping siblings together and simplifying transportation arrangements. Students requiring bilingual or special education are naturally assigned on the basis of program.

In the fall of 1982, 88 percent of the the new general-program students were assigned to one of their first three choices, while some of the others simply did not indicate a choice.

The Cambridge approach has the benefit of subjecting every new student to the same desegregation requirement while providing satisfactory school assignments to the great majority of them (it is of course hoped that the others will find their assigned schools satisfactory). The approach is widely perceived as being fair and as increasing the influence of parents over where their children attend school, in contrast with many desegregation plans that seem to place arbitrary burdens and to limit choice.

White enrollment has actually declined less rapidly than before desegregation began, and less than in many suburban communities. Over time, it is to be anticipated that the expressed parental preferences will have a profound though informal influence upon the responsiveness of principals and teachers to parental concerns.

The Cambridge plan applies to voluntary desegregation the rational and comprehensive approach that has been characteristic of mandatory-assignment plans.

By contrast, many "voluntary" plans seem haphazard and prone to unanticipated negative consequences, including the elitism and increased segregation of non-magnet schools mentioned above; such plans tend to be stitched together of disparate elements, each valid in itself, but incoherent and even conflicting when taken together. It is clear that if we are to make voluntary measures the heart of major desegregation plans, as Judge Shadur seems to suggest, we will need to approach them with care and consistency, as in Cambridge.

Vol. 02, Issue 24, Page 24, 20

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