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Judge Declares Denver Schools Desegregated

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A federal judge last week declared the Denver school system desegregated, effectively ending a landmark case and the sharply debated busing efforts it spawned.

In a 70-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch released the Denver schools from 21 years of federal oversight and upheld a 1974 amendment to the state constitution prohibiting districts not under federal desegregation orders from busing children for racial balance.

"The Denver now before this court is very different from what it was when this lawsuit began," Judge Matsch wrote, noting that blacks and Hispanics have been elected mayor and held other city offices, including seats on the school board.

"People of color are not bystanders," he said. "Their voices will be heard in the Denver school system. There is little danger that they will permit the public schools to deny them full participation."

The judge said recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have recognized the limitations of the courts and the importance of the democratic process in the governance of public schools. He said the courts were justified in ordering the district to remedy past segregation but have "neither the competence nor the power" to compel the school system to continue addressing racial disparities it was not shown to have caused.

"We are all elated at the prospect of what this ruling means" because it allows the district "to pick up the pace in the desperate race to reach the educational needs of our students today," Aaron Gray, the Denver school board president, said at a news conference after the decision.

Desegregating the North

The Denver case, Keyes v. School District No. 1, differed from many of its predecessors in the South in that it did not stem from a state law requiring segregated schools. Instead, eight families filed the lawsuit in 1969 because they believed that the district was deliberately keeping minority children out of schools in the predominantly white Park Hill neighborhood in northeast Denver.

When the Supreme Court held in 1973 that the district must desegregate "root and branch," it opened the door to similar lawsuits against school systems in the North. It also ushered in one of the nation's most far-reaching busing programs, a development many would blame for a sharp decline in the district's white population over the next 20 years. After the Congress of Hispanic Educators, a Denver advocacy group, intervened as plaintiffs, the district undertook efforts to improve its bilingual-education programs.

Last year, after two decades marked by both amicable agreements and bitter battles in various federal courts, Judge Matsch held a trial to determine if the district was unitary, or free of the vestiges of segregation.

The judge last week set aside the issue of bilingual education. Focusing on desegregation, he held that the district had complied with his orders in "good faith" and had eliminated the vestiges of discrimination to the extent practicable.

A New Day

Judge Matsch rejected the plaintiffs' challenge to the amendment to the state constitution that forbids districts not under federal desegregation orders from assigning or transporting students "for the purpose of achieving racial balance."

He held that the provision "is entirely consistent" with the U.S. Constitution's equal-protection clause, which has been interpreted as prohibiting race-based policies unless they remedy past discrimination, and rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the state provision turned the clause "on its head" by barring the remedies it requires. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1994.)

In an interview, William T. Randall, the state schools chief, said the district can now abandon court-ordered policies that had stood in the way of school reforms. The main question he and others were asking is how quickly such change should take place.

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