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Del. Governor Backs Off Proposal To End Desegregation Case

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Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware has abandoned a negotiated settlement of Wilmington's long-running desegregation case.

Though the plaintiffs and defendants were aboard, the Governor decided to change course because the agreement was in danger of being torpedoed.

Governor Carper announced his decision last month after the state legislators and federal court judge who would have to approve the agreement attacked it as inadequate and "ill conceived.''

The Governor said he would not ask the legislature to take action on the settlement, but instead would seek to take the case, involving Wilmington and several of its New Castle County suburbs, to trial in June in hopes of getting the districts declared "unitary,'' or free of the vestiges of segregation.

"I continue to believe that the negotiated agreement is a sound one that would end court supervision, enable districts to reduce busing, improve the education of our children, and promote interracial harmony in New Castle County,'' Governor Carper said in a statement.

But, noting that the court "has now given indications that it is unwilling to approve the settlement,'' the Governor said the state's lawyers "must focus their attention on litigation.''

The lawyers for the plaintiffs, an organization of parents and activists called the Coalition to Save Our Children, last week filed a motion to delay any litigation.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has filed a motion to intervene in the case because, it says, the plaintiffs do not represent its interests and have accepted an accord that will not render the district unitary.

The House bipartisan committee on desegregation, which is seeking an immediate end to federal oversight of the districts, has also filed a motion to intervene.

The Governor pledged that, regardless of what happens in court, the state will press on with the education changes outlined in the agreement that do not require court or legislative approval.

"The agreement has a number of programs that are good for all of our kids,'' Paul R. Fine, the president of the state board of education, said in a statement. "In that spirit, we will continue to work hard to put those into effect--agreement or not.''

Less Busing, More Reform

Delaware was one of four states whose laws requiring school segregation were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 in the landmark Brown decision.

Despite the ruling in the Brown case, a U.S. District Court found two decades later that Wilmington and its predominantly white suburbs had erected barriers between themselves to maintain racial segregation in their schools.

Its 1978 order in the case established what remains one of the nation's most expansive metropolitan desegregation plans. It includes a provision calling for children to be bused from predominantly black city schools to predominantly white suburban schools for nine of their 12 years in school; children in the suburbs, meanwhile, are bused into the city for just three years.

The plan came under fire for requiring children to take long bus rides and for placing a disproportionate burden on black children.

The state board of education filed a motion last June to have the districts involved declared unitary and released from court supervision. At the court's urging, however, the board then entered into negotiations with the plaintiffs.

The final agreement, reached in December, called for an immediate end to the "9-3 Plan,'' a relaxation of racial-balance guidelines, the implementation of several education initiatives, and the termination of federal court supervision at the end of the 1998-99 school year.

Governor Carper had praised the agreement as "fair and equitable'' and preferable to expensive litigation. The state board of education and the four defendant school districts--Red Clay Consolidated, Christina, Colonial, and Brandywine--approved the accord.

But when Mr. Carper began pushing for quick legislative approval, the House committee on desegregation balked. The state, it argued, had been moving too fast on an agreement that would be too slow in ending busing and federal court supervision.

"The essence of the case, as I see it, is that parents--both in the city and in suburban New Castle County--are tired of their kids being bused past the closest school for the sole purpose of achieving an artificial racial balance,'' Richard A. Hauge, a state senator who serves as an ad hoc member of the committee, said in an interview last week.

Mr. Hauge charged that the agreement, instead of focusing on an immediate end to busing, seeks to secure a "faddish, politically correct education agenda.''

Desegregation's Frontier?

In briefs filed before the court, the House desegregation committee argued that it was beyond the court's authority to approve the education initiatives in the agreement.

In a memorandum of opinion issued this month, U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson agreed.

She said the settlement, which she has not yet formally been asked to approve, "takes the court where it has declined over the decades to venture--into the educational process itself.'' In addition, she said, it asks her to resolve disputes related to the education process even after the districts are declared unitary.

Saying she had been given little guidance, Ms. Robinson, who took over the case last fall, called the agreement "ill conceived.''

The lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking to appeal Judge Robinson's opinion to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The state board of education last week voted to take no position on the appeal and to oppose any effort by the coalition or other parties to delay litigation.

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