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Educational Bias Is Issue in Ill. District Desegregation Case

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A federal district court in Rockford, Ill., heard opening arguments last week in a school-desegregation case against the city's public schools that hinges to an unusual degree on disparities in the "quality'' of education provided students of different races.

Robert C. Howard, the lawyer for the minority plaintiffs in the case, said last week that he and his colleagues will show that the Rockford school system should be held liable for racial segregation due to many policies--including those on academic tracking, staff and student assignment, and discipline--that, on the surface, may appear to have been adopted with a racially neutral intent.

The plaintiffs allege that minority children are underrepresented in most extracurricular activities; that the least-able teachers have been assigned to predominantly minority schools; and that schools with large minority enrollments have received fewer microscopes, dictionaries, overhead projectors, and other materials than those with large white enrollments.

An aide to Mr. Howard added that the case also will explore such factors as teachers' attitudes about race, the quality of their training, and cultural bias in the curriculum.

The aide said the plaintiffs have not spelled out what sort of remedies they will seek if they should win the case.

"You can successfully litigate a desegregation case in the 90's,'' Mr. Howard said. "But it is likely to be more focused on educational discrimination'' and less on remedying the problem through widespread integration as was the case in most previous suits.

Maree F. Sneed, a partner in the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson who specializes in civil-rights law, said the case is distinct because of its "focus on in-school segregation issues.''

The plaintiffs "have to prove that the schools were intentionally segregated'' to win their case, she noted, and they "are trying to prove that by looking at educational quality.''

A lawyer for the school district did not respond to requests for comment. Fred L. Wham, the president of the Rockford school board, said in a brief interview last week that the district is "not guilty of districtwide discrimination,'' adding, "We will vigorously defend the lawsuit.''

Case Background

The Rockford school system is the second largest in Illinois, with about 27,000 students. Its enrollment is about 73 percent white, 23 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Asian.

The plaintiffs in the case--minority students and a coalition of individuals and groups called People Who Care--filed suit in 1989 when the school board, as part of a cost-cutting plan, proposed abandoning a desegregation program that it had adopted voluntarily in the early 1970's and that relied heavily on magnet schools in minority neighborhoods.

The board also proposed closing 10 schools, including West High School--the most integrated high school in the city--and six other schools on the west side of town, where most of Rockford's racial minorities are concentrated.

People Who Care argued in its suit that the school-closing plan would resegregate the district by breaking up integrated schools and would unfairly burden minority students.

The plaintiffs and the district entered two consent decrees, one in 1989 and another in 1991, in an attempt to settle the dispute.

Among other provisions, the decrees required the district to build new schools and to adopt programs to benefit minority students and to abrogate provisions in contracts with its unions dealing with seniority if they conflicted with segregation remedies.

Although the district has spent more than $40 million for construction and other efforts to implement the agreement, the plaintiffs insist it has not lived up to its promises.

Several of the districts' unions, all affiliated with the National Education Association, intervened in the case on the side of the district to oppose the decree provisions affecting union members' seniority rights.

In April 1992, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the district and the plaintiffs had no right to override the union contract for the sake of integration because a court had never ruled that the district had practiced racial discrimination. (See Education Week, May 6, 1992.)

Untested Argument

"At that point,'' Mr. Howard, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said, "it was crystal clear that this case could not be resolved except with a liability judgment.''

"Every expert that we have consulted, including the school district's experts,'' he added, "all agree that if you are serious about educational improvements for minority students, you must be able to select teachers among applicants--people who want to be there--and you must be able to select on the basis of capability, rather than seniority.''

The plaintiffs are basing their case largely on an untested interpretation of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In Freeman v. Pitts, the Court last spring held that in order to be relieved from court supervision, school districts that were once segregated by law need not remedy racial imbalances caused by demographic shifts and other factors not under their control.

The Justices also ruled that a district's areas of operations may be declared "unitary,'' or free of the vestiges of discrimination, in stages. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

According to Mr. Howard, in Freeman the High Court for the first time accepted the notion that lower courts may consider whether a district is providing "a quality education for all students'' when deciding whether to relieve the district from supervision.

He said this factor is in addition to the six other categories of school operations--student assignment, faculty, staff, transportation, physical facilities, and extracurricular activities--that the High Court has said must be free from racial bias before a district can be freed from court oversight.

Mr. Howard reasoned that if educational quality is a permissible factor in deciding whether a district has made a good-faith effort to desegregate and should be freed from judicial supervision, it should be an allowable factor in deciding whether a district like Rockford has intentionally discriminated against minority students and should be placed under supervision for the first time.

"If you take action that segregates against black students or educationally discriminates against black students, and you know the consequences, and people point it out to you and say, 'Don't do this,' or, 'There are available alternatives that are not segregative or discriminatory,' that proves discriminatory intent in the constitutional sense,'' he said.

Tracking System Questioned

Jeannie Oakes, an expert witness on academic tracking and ability grouping scheduled to testify on behalf of the Rockford plaintiffs this week, said the case could result in "legal scrutiny of tracking systems that there has not been in the past.''

She noted that courts usually become concerned with racial imbalance in the distribution of students among classrooms only when schools require it or it is traceable to biased tests.

The Rockford plaintiffs, she said, maintain that any ability-grouping policy that results in racially imbalanced classrooms is, in itself, grounds for a finding of intentional discrimination.

In depositions submitted in the case, Ms. Oakes asserts that in the Rockford district race is one of the major factors determining placement in academic tracks.

"Among the kids who are in the qualifying range for two tracks, the ones ... who get put in the higher track are disproportionately white, and the kids who get put in the lower track are disproportionately minority,'' said Ms. Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Ability grouping is one of several areas where the plaintiffs' lawyers are attempting to show that the Rockford district intentionally discriminated against black and Hispanic students.

They also assert that the Rockford board should be found liable in such other areas as transportation, student assignment, discipline, extracurricular activities, staff assignment, curriculum, distribution of educational resources, and disparities in facilities.

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