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Districts View Desegregation In a New Light

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When a federal court declared the Denver public schools desegregated, local school officials hailed the decision as the dawning of a bright new day.

Three months later, the ruling seems to have left them groping in the dark.

Like a growing number of other school districts, Denver is coming to terms with the end of a court desegregation order that for years profoundly influenced, and often dictated, many of the decisions about education policy made there.

Educators in the 61,000-student district must now grapple with a tough question: How will they ensure the integration and education of minority children when court supervision is gone?

Their colleagues in Buffalo, N.Y.; Wilmington, Del., and its suburbs; and several other districts nationwide face the same dilemma. With years--often decades--of strict court oversight suddenly lifted, these districts confront a shifting and complex legal landscape that may leave anything they do, or don't do, to promote integration open to challenge.

For some lawmakers in several states and in Congress, the idea of ending court supervision signals the demise of a misguided and expensive intrusion into local government. For others, including many civil-rights activists, the trend marks a step backward in terms of school segregation and the legal means of fighting it.

Denver officials had hoped the U.S. District Court ruling would leave them free to do whatever they thought necessary to educate the minority children who make up about 67 percent of the system's enrollment. So far, they have largely been disappointed.

Where the court had once ordered the busing of students, the state now prohibits even the popular voluntary busing programs the district had hoped to continue using.

And, though many Denver parents have long called for a return to neighborhood schools, others now insist that the district continue to bus their children to magnet programs far from their homes.

Uncertain Terrain

The district had devised a comprehensive plan to educate children who remain in overwhelmingly minority settings, but Denver voters last month soundly defeated a $30 million tax levy needed to pay for it.

Like other school systems in its position, Denver is in no hurry to dismantle its desegregation plan, which had brought new state and federal resources and helped justify costly efforts to improve the education of minority students.

"There is a deep commitment on the part of many school districts in the country to keep much of what they feel they have gained under desegregation," said Patricia A. Brannan, a Washington lawyer who often represents districts in desegregation matters.

But all of these districts face intense and growing political, legal, or financial pressures to curtail those efforts, especially where student assignment is involved.

Many civil-rights advocates predict that most such districts will soon return to neighborhood schools with enrollments that reflect their communities' segregated housing patterns.

"Once school-desegregation orders are lifted, residential segregation becomes operative again," said Theodore M. Shaw, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. "Without a conscious commitment to school desegregation, the trend is going to be toward resegregation."

Denver is one of several districts released from desegregation orders in recent months. Buffalo and metropolitan Wilmington also have been declared "unitary," or free from the vestiges of racial segregation.

The Broward County, Fla., school system is on the brink of gaining unitary status, and experts predict that several other districts in Florida and elsewhere will soon follow.

"There has been a whole raft of unitary actions, some of which are now being initiated by the courts," said David J. Armor, a research professor at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"There is a lot of stuff happening out there. Unitary-status petitions and hearings are definitely on the rise," added Mr. Armor, who frequently testifies on behalf of districts seeking release from court supervision.

Supreme Court's Impact

Civil-rights lawyers say much of the recent legal activity was inspired by three U.S. Supreme Court decisions:

  • A 1991 ruling in an Oklahoma City case said federal courts must provide districts with specific thresholds which, if met, allow districts to win release from desegregation orders. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)
  • A 1992 ruling involving DeKalb County, Ga., let districts off the hook for remedying segregation caused by new demographic trends. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)
  • A ruling earlier this year involving Kansas City, Mo., said that desegregation does not require districts to completely close achievement gaps between white and minority students. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

The rulings mark a significant shift in the justices' attitude toward desegregation.

"It is clear from their decisions in the last five years that they no longer support the idea of a long-term federal court review of what local school districts do in the desegregation context," said Al Kauffman, a senior staff lawyer in the San Antonio office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"They are making it increasingly easier for districts to be declared unitary," Mr. Kauffman added, "and their new stand is that, once the district is declared unitary, the history is forgotten."

Fending Off the Courts

All three Supreme Court decisions came on narrow, five-member majorities, and they do not signal a complete abandonment of school desegregation, several experts noted.

"It is still true that the easiest way for the school district to get the plaintiffs to go away is to desegregate their schools," said Christopher A. Hansen, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in New York City who handles desegregation cases.

But the high court's recent rulings, taken together, indicate that it has grown weary of the long involvement of the federal court system in desegregation and is eager to be rid of the task, several experts said.

Though exact figures are not available, federal officials estimate that more than 300 of the nation's roughly 16,000 school districts are under some sort of federal court supervision.

Congress, too, has taken up the issue. A House subcommittee is studying whether Congress should limit the federal courts' power to intervene in the policy decisions and daily operations of school districts under desegregation orders.

At a hearing Sept. 18 of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Rep. Martin R. Hoke said the long-term effect of the federal courts' foray into school desegregation has been "to turn our fundamental understanding of the separation of powers on its head.

"I am certain that the framers never envisioned such a role for the federal judiciary," added Mr. Hoke, an Ohio Republican.

In much the same spirit, several Pennsylvania state legislators have introduced legislation that would restrict the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission from ordering districts to bus students for racial balance.

"My constituents in Pittsburgh have said loud and clear that they want to return to a neighborhood-schools concept," said state Rep. Harry A. Readshaw, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.

Meanwhile, the Washington state board of education is considering relaxing a rule that requires districts to bus students if any school's minority enrollment strays 25 percent from the district average.

And Gov. Fife Symington of Arizona is expected next month to introduce legislation that would require districts under federal desegregation orders to actively seek their release.

In other states, civil-rights lawyers remain on the offensive. A lawsuit in a New Jersey state court has pushed that state to consider merging several Bergen County districts into one larger district to promote integration. Separate lawsuits before the Connecticut Supreme Court and a federal court in Minnesota seek to force those states to implement desegregation remedies involving large cities and their suburbs.

But, despite such developments, legal experts predict that 10 years from now, relatively few districts will remain under court desegregation orders.

The Price of Freedom

Rather than welcome the release from court orders, some districts oppose it. The state of Missouri, in attempting to liberate the St. Louis and Kansas City school systems from federal court oversight, has encountered substantial resistance from the districts themselves.

The districts maintain that they have not remedied past segregation. The state, a co-defendant, claims the districts want to prolong court supervision because it has led to rulings that have required the state to pump billions of dollars into the districts.

A similar battle is being played out in Maryland, where state and county officials have been prodding the Prince George's County school system to seek unitary status.

Enrollment in the 120,000-student district has gone from nearly 80 percent white to more than 70 percent black during two decades of court supervision. Black parents there have complained that the district's guidelines for racial balance create pointless busing and often bar children from the district's magnet programs.

The school board has refused, however, to seek its release from court supervision until the county and state agree to pay for a return to neighborhood schools.

No Return?

Clint Bolick, the litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based libertarian advocacy group, said last week that the additional federal, state, and local money that flows to districts under desegregation orders gives them a strong incentive to preserve the status quo.

Court desegregation orders also "tend to provide certainty and political cover for school boards," offering them a ready excuse for not satisfying public demands for improved education policies, Mr. Bolick said.

Once a district has been declared unitary, minority activists must build an entirely new desegregation case against it if they wish to challenge its actions as discriminatory.

"From the point of view of community groups or advocates, it is a heavy evidentiary burden to go in and show intentional segregation" in the 1990s, said Mr. Kauffman of MALDEF.

"Districts are not like they used to be. They are more sophisticated. Anything they do, they couch in nonracist terms," he added.

Mr. Bolick contended that a district's wholesale abandonment of any effort to maintain racial integration "could be evidence of discriminatory intent." But the use of race-based student assignment to maintain integrated schools also has been challenged as unconstitutional in recent, pending federal lawsuits. (See Education Week, Sept. 27, 1995.)

Last month, parent protests prompted the school district in Montgomery County, Md., which is not under a court order, to begin re-evaluating its policy of blocking some student transfers that hurt efforts to maintain racially and ethnically integrated schools.

In the absence of court desegregation orders, advocates for minority students may seek relief in lawsuits that challenge the fairness of statewide school-funding systems.

For the most part, however, minority children in unitary districts must now trust their elected local, state, and federal leaders to ensure that their education is not separate and unequal. Although many of those officials espouse educational equity and racial integration and promise that schools will provide it, civil-rights groups say the suggestions often put forth for how to achieve those goals enjoy little political support.

In the case of Denver, Mark Stevens, a district spokesman, said the district remains committed to providing equal educational opportunities to minority children.

But Gordon G. Greiner, a lawyer who has represented the minority plaintiffs in that district's case, expressed concern that the city's black and Hispanic children "are going to get lost in the shuffle, and a lot of the benefits accrued over the years are going to be lost."

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