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Rights Panel To Investigate Flaws in School-Desegregation Study

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Washington--The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week agreed to review its major school-desegregation study, after hearing detailed evidence supporting charges that the study is seriously flawed and potentially biased.

The commission also directed its legal counsel to investigate whether the commission can be reimbursed for the $475,000 already allocated for the project, on the grounds that the research firm hired to conduct the study--and since replaced--provided incomplete and inadequate data.

The commission's unanimous voice vote to investigate the study represented a dramatic shift from last month's commission meeting, in which the majority of the commission members expressed support for the school-desegregation study.

But many of the commissioners appeared to be having second thoughts after Gary Orfield, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago and a former member of the study's five-member advisory board, documented accusations of flaws in the study that he first leveled earlier this fall.

"We have to recognize that we have a problem," said John Bunzel, the commissioner who made the motion to investigate the study. "By ignoring it, that problem is not going to go away."

Study Attacked

The study, authorized by the commission in 1983, was attacked by Mr. Orfield as "flawed and biased" in his Oct. 25 letter of resignation, which was sent to the commission's chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1985.)

At last month's commission meeting--to which Mr. Orfield was not invited--the accusations were rebutted by David Armor, chairman of the advisory panel and president of a California consulting firm, and Finis Welch, chairman of Unicon Research Corporation, the firm presently conducting the research on the desegregation study. Both vigorously defended the validity and objectivity of the study.

'Strong Ideological Tilt'

Mr. Orfield, who was invited to present his views last week, read from a 10-page written statement.

"My basic objections to the study," he told the commissioners, "concern the lack of the necessary professional skills in the contractor's staff, the strong ideological tilt in the key leadership positions of the study, the lack of fair treatment of those who were not anti-busing activists on the advisory committee, and the exceedingly narrow focus of the research as it's now defined."

The study includes visits to 40 school districts, written questionnaires, and the collection of census data, enrollment records, and existing research on school desegregation. Originally contracted to the California-based System Development Corporation, it was transferred to Unicon, another California firm, after most of System Development Corporation's senior staff left.

Mr. Orfield said he strongly objected to the fact that not all of the advisory-panel members were consulted when the transfer was made and that Unicon has little expertise in school-desegregation research.

As evidence of ideological bias4among the study's leadership, Mr. Orfield offered documentation of fees that Mr. Armor has received for testifying as an expert witness against mandatory busing in numerous school-desegregation cases.

He also noted that System Development Corporation, in an initial outline of the study, specifically requested that Mr. Armor not be named to the panel on the grounds that his views were already well known and could make the advisory-group meetings adversarial and unproductive.

Mr. Orfield suggested repairing what he termed a "messy situation" by having well-informed experts not presently involved in the study examine the accuracy of the data already collected.

He also recommended terminating the contract with Unicon, transferring the project to another firm, and naming prominent black and Hispanic desegregation researchers to the advisory panel, which currently includes no minority members.

'Swallowing Elephants'

The commissioners devoted a substantial portion of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting to criticizing Mr. Orfield for making his resignation public and less time to addressing the substance of his objections.

The nature of the questionsprompted one commissioner, Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, to tell her colleagues that she was "slightly embarrassed" by the tone of discussion.

"We are swallowing elephants and choking on gnats," she said. "Mr. Orfield could probably stand some criticism for going public, but he could also use some congratulations for standing up for what he believes in," she said. "Had he not come here, we would have accepted everything about the conduct of this study."

By the end of the discussion, Mr. Orfield's testimony and the numerous documents he submitted seemed to have persuaded most of the commission members of the need to in-vestigate the study before continuing further.

Mr. Bunzel, who at the November meeting had said the study was in "good hands," acknowledged that "Mr. Orfield has raised questions about the study that are impressive."

The commission passed Mr. Bunzel's motion directing the staff to investigate Mr. Orfield's objections and "report as soon as possible."

"I don't want to throw good money at a bad project," Mr. Bunzel said.

After the meeting, Mr. Orfield said that if independent researchers investigate the study and find the data adequate, it might be "rescued." Otherwise, he said, it should be terminated.

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