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Governor Seeks End To Desegregation Orders in Ariz.

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Gov. Fife Symington has launched a campaign to rid Arizona of local school-desegregation programs ordered by federal courts, in part because they can prevent students from enrolling in the state's new charter schools.

The governor will propose state legislation requiring all districts under the desegregation orders to press for their own release, C. Diane Bishop, the governor's adviser on education policy, said last week.

"The education of Arizona's children should not be held prisoner by a racial quota system," Mr. Symington, a Republican, said at a recent news conference.

Last week, however, the U.S. Department of Justice moved to dissuade a federal district judge from ending court supervision of the Phoenix Union High School District, the chief target of the governor's ire. In a motion filed jointly with the school district and plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the district, the department's lawyers told Judge Carl Muecke that the district was not completely desegregated.

Transfers Denied

The district, which serves the center of Phoenix, entered into a consent decree with the department in 1985 to avoid having to defend its student-assignment policies in a trial. It enrolls about 20,000 high school students, fewer than a third of whom are white.

The Phoenix high school district's efforts to preserve racial balance, combined with the state's new charter-school law, led to the current dispute. Last month, district officials denied requests by more than 20 children to transfer to charter schools, saying their departure would upset the racial balance required by the consent decree.

After Gov. Symington failed to persuade the Phoenix officials to reverse their decision, Lisa Graham, the state superintendent, urged the parents of the children to enroll them in the charter schools anyway.

Ren‚ X. Diaz, the superintendent of the Phoenix high school district, said last week he fears that if the court order is lifted or students are given unfettered access to charter schools, his district will become resegregated. He also worries that such a move could endanger the district's magnet-school programs.

Achievement Criticized

"The court order allows us to provide many programs for our students where they are experiencing success and great achievement," Mr. Diaz said. "I don't want to lose that."

But John F. Huppenthal, the Republican chairman of the state Senate's education committee, said last week he supports the governor's efforts to push such districts out from under court supervision.

He criticized student achievement in the Phoenix high school district and said that charter schools offer much promise for its students. "It is evil to hold them in a system which isn't doing much for them, particularly when it is so damned expensive," he said.

The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People plans to fight Gov. Symington's efforts to end local desegregation plans.

Oscar S. Tillman, who oversees the state naacp's efforts to handle discrimination complaints, compared Mr. Symington to the segregationist Southern governors who gained notoriety fighting the early civil-rights movement.

Mr. Tillman noted that his state was the last to approve an official holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The governor and the state superintendent "want schools to be segregated," he said. "They want us to step back into the 1940s."

Contented Losers?

Phoenix Union is one of about 30 Arizona districts that are under federal court orders to desegregate their schools or that have pledged to do so in agreements with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

Ms. Bishop said last week that the districts under court supervision "are happy with the status quo" because the court orders enable them to raise and spend more money.

The state's 1980 school-funding law partially exempts districts under desegregation orders from limits on taxes and spending established to ensure equitable funding.

Under this provision, local school board approval is all such districts need to levy optional property taxes earmarked for desegregation.

"You have this ludicrous situation where A sues B, and B agrees to lose the lawsuit, and C has to pay for it," Mr. Huppenthal said last week.

Ms. Bishop, a former state superintendent, estimated that districts around the state raise about $105 million annually for desegregation through such exemptions. The Phoenix high school district raises $33 million a year for desegregation.

Concern for Programs

Ms. Bishop said a joint legislative committee is reconsidering those provisions as it seeks to comply with a 1994 state supreme court ruling that Arizona's method of paying for school construction violates the state constitution.

"The effect of these desegregation orders is to make a mediocre education very expensive," said Mr. Huppenthal, whose Republican colleagues have accused Phoenix Union and other Arizona districts of opposing charter schools because they fear the competition.

Superintendent Diaz said he supports charter schools. He denied that financial concerns are behind the Phoenix district's opposition to the student transfers and to its release from desegregation orders.

Mr. Diaz said that among his primary concerns are complying with the court's orders and keeping his district's special programs in place until it has remedied past discrimination.

"Although we have been very successful with some of our students, we still have a long way to go to ascertain that all of our kids are being successful," he said.

Charters vs. Magnets

Mr. Diaz said Phoenix Union denied permission to transfer to only a fifth of the students who applied to attend charter schools.

The students who were denied transfers to charter schools represented several racial and ethnic groups, and had to be kept in their respective schools to keep them racially balanced, a district spokesman said.

Governor Symington argued, however, that the Phoenix district's schools are not adequately serving all their students, and that parents should be allowed to decide whether their children attend charter schools.

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