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Panel Turns Back Philadelphia's Voluntary Desegregation Plan

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Philadelphia--Superintendent of Schools Constance E. Clayton suffered a setback last week in her efforts to desegregate the city's public schools without forced busing, when the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission rejected her voluntary plan.

The decision by the commission, the agency with jurisdiction over desegregation in Pennsylvania, forces the issue of how best to desegregate Philadelphia schools back into Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, where hearings were scheduled for this week.

In rejecting the plan put forward by Ms. Clayton, the district's first black superintendent, the human-relations commission said that the plan relied on voluntary measures that had proved unsuccessful in the past, and that it failed to use measures advocated by both the commission and the court.

Such measures include pairing predominantly white schools with nearby predominantly black schools and transferring students from schools closed due to declining enrollment in a way that would enhance desegregation.

In a sharply worded statement before the board of education the day after the commission vote, Ms. Clayton replied: "The commission and its staff seem to remain mired in the past, unable to look forward, unwilling to look around, and afraid to consider new options, new ideas, and new approaches.

"The crux of the disagreement between the school district and the commission," she continued, "resolves to one issue and one issue only: whether the school district should adopt a plan that would require the mandatory reassignment of students."

Ms. Clayton contends that a mandatory plan would not work in the Philadelphia School District, the nation's fifth largest, because parents who could afford to would leave the system for private or parochial schools rather than submit to forced busing for their children.

"An even higher proportion of the students remaining in the system would be minority; desegregation would become more, not less, difficult to achieve," she said in her statement last week.

Ms. Clayton submitted her plan earlier this month. (See Education Week, Oct. 5, 1983.) Community response to the voluntary plan has been overwhelmingly positive. A coalition of 14 parent and community groups expressed support for the plan and dismay at the position taken by the human-relations commission at a news conference last week.

"[Ms. Clayton's plan] includes lots of things that parents have been pushing for for years in a desegregation plan," said Ruth Spergel, vice-president of the Home and School Council. "The commission seems to be out of touch with what people want. Not having a child in Philadelphia public schools and some of them never having had a child in Philadelphia public schools, they're just playing with numbers and they're playing a game. They never changed in 14 years. They never bent to reality."

However, one important group opposing the plan is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Earl W. Trent, an attorney for four area naacp chapters, addressed the commission meeting last week and urged rejection of the plan.

Mr. Trent called the plan "contemptuous" and said the naacp would not allow the district to remain segregated just because its administration is black. Mr. Trent called the plan a return to the "separate-but-equal" doctrine because, he said, it is not a desegregation plan, but a plan to improve black schools. However, he said he was not commenting on that portion of the plan that called for the desegregation of 43 schools.

Ms. Clayton said the next step is to make sure Commonwealth Court, the state court that originally required the district to develop the plan, understands it.

"We will ask the court to weigh the plan that we have submitted in light of the realities, the resources, and the real needs of this school district," said Ms. Clayton. "It is my hope that in that forum, reality will intervene and reason will prevail."

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