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Emphasis on Equal Opportunity Urged

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Four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that racially separate schools are inherently unequal, that historic proposition is being questioned by many educators and desegregation experts, who argue that it must be re-evaluated for the sake of today's minority students.

With few exceptions, those who gathered to commemorate last week's 40th anniversary of the May 17, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education ruling continued to embrace the decision and its goal of integration.

But many advocates for minority children are pessimistic about the prospects of overcoming the segregation that remains a pervasive part of the nation's schools. They increasingly are arguing that the focus of attention must be on providing equal educational opportunity to children in racially isolated urban settings.

Even staunch advocates of integration, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, appear to have abandoned efforts to racially integrate some overwhelmingly minority districts. Instead, they are directing their energies toward securing a better education for the students in those districts.

"We are proponents of integration, but it has always been in the name of equal educational opportunity,'' Pace J. McConkie, the assistant general counsel for the N.A.A.C.P., said last week.

Any attempt to bring the education offered in heavily minority urban schools up to par with mostly white schools elsewhere is likely to be complicated, however, by the lack of a clear definition of equal educational opportunity, either in the schools or in the courts. Moreover, many judges appear hesitant to wade into an area that has mired educators in debate.

'Moot Issues'

The question of whether equal educational opportunity is possible in racially isolated settings yields a wide spectrum of responses from educators. Some hold that it is impossible, while others maintain that it is happening already.

Dallas school officials, for example, argued this month in U.S. District Court that they have done all they can to provide equal educational opportunity to all of their students, and should be released from federal court supervision.

Enrollment in the Dallas schools is less than 15 percent white, noted Larry Ascough, a district spokesman. "The issues of mixing bodies and doing a lot of traditional things that people think about in terms of desegregation are moot issues,'' he said.

Another point of view was expressed by Warren Simmons, a senior associate for the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Greenwich, Conn. Despite the existence of some highly successful big-city schools, he said, "no one has been able to generate the political will, the support, and the resources necessary'' to insure equal opportunity throughout a racially isolated urban district.

Many civil-rights advocates believe that even integrated schools and districts isolate and shortchange minority students by routing them into lower-level and special-education classes, disciplining them disproportionately, offering culturally biased classes and tests, and allowing their schools to have a climate that injures minority students' self-esteem.

'Second Generation' Issues

Such "second generation'' desegregation issues have been a focus of the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights under the Clinton Administration, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a speech last week.

"The mere fact that you have black kids and white kids in the same building based on percentages does not bring a truly desegregated school system,'' argued Leonard L. Williams, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in a desegregation case involving Wilmington, Del., and its suburbs.

Although that case has brought an extraordinary measure of metropolitan integration, the plaintiffs say they continue to be denied educational equity, and they have called for new educational programs.

Some African-American advocates of all-black schools hold that the process of integrating into a school dominated by white people and their ideas is severely damaging to the psyches of black students.

"Neither the Supreme Court nor the celebrants of its decision comprehended the depth and staying power of the racist ideology and belief system that produced and sustained segregation,'' Asa G. Hilliard 3rd, a professor of urban studies at Georgia State University and a leading figure in the Afrocentric-education movement, said in a paper submitted last week at a conference on Brown at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Defining Equality

The issue of educational equality was not addressed during the early years of the school-desegregation movement, and its legal definition remains unclear today.

In Brown, the Supreme Court held that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.'' But the decision did not spell out what educational equality would be. A year later, the Court set into motion the creation of a patchwork of different definitions by directing local school boards to devise remedies and lower courts to resolve any disagreements related to them.

The resistance encountered by desegregation from the outset served to keep those seeking to implement Brown focused on litigation rather than educational issues.

Indeed, desegregation experts said the Court did not begin to seriously address educational issues until its 1968 decision in a case concerning a Virginia district, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. That ruling held that the courts, in assessing district compliance with desegregation orders, should examine efforts in such areas as per-pupil expenditures, faculty and staff assignments, and extracurricular activities.

Another key step in the process came in 1977, four years after the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley that Detroit's suburbs could not be compelled to take part in a metropolitan-desegregation plan unless proved guilty of constitutional violations. In its second Milliken opinion, the Court said remedies to state-sanctioned segregation "should restore the victims of discriminatory conduct to the position they would have occupied in the absence of such conduct.''

The state could be asked to pay for educational improvements to remedy that segregation, the Court said.

The so-called "Milliken II'' remedies have remained controversial. The Harvard Project on School Desegregation last month issued a report on compensatory remedies implemented in four major districts and concluded that the remedies fell far short of meeting the standard articulated in the case.

Officials in some of the districts have challenged the reports as unfair, however, and argue that they have made substantial strides in raising student achievement.

Several recent federal and state decisions have given educational issues additional weight in desegregation cases.

Toward Equal Outcomes

The rulings have been inspired by the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Freeman v. Pitts, which involved the DeKalb County, Ga., district. In it, the Court held that the quality of education offered throughout a district could be seen as a measure of a district's good faith in complying with court orders.

Citing that decision, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Rockford, Ill., desegregation case last fall succeeded in proving the district guilty of racial discrimination based on its use of ability grouping and other practices previously viewed as racially neutral. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)

In February, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge ordered the Philadelphia school system to remedy a long list of discriminatory educational practices, such as the denial of equal minority access to the best-qualified teachers, equal physical facilities, and advanced course offerings. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994.)

The following month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that educational remedies in the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation case should be measured by their effect on student achievement. The district has undertaken the most expensive desegregation plan in the nation, making extensive use of magnet schools in an effort to boost achievement and draw white students from surrounding areas.

The St. Louis district also has been ordered to address academic achievement, graduation rates, disparities in college-application rates, and other measures of educational improvement.

In addition, a U.S. District Court judge last fall told the Yonkers, N.Y., district to re-examine its various educational policies--including curriculum and teaching techniques--with the objective of closing gaps in the test scores of white and minority students.

Similarly, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Dallas case this month argued that, in considering whether to release the district from supervision, the court should look not only at the programs the system has implemented but also at their impact on achievement.

Alfred A. Lindseth, a lawyer for several Georgia districts, last week predicted the Supreme Court eventually will have to address the question of whether districts under court supervision should be held to certain educational outcomes.

But several experts said requiring equal achievement would raise a host of objections and difficult questions related to the impact of environment on the achievement of low-income minority students.

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