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As Desegregation Changes, So Must Educators, Law Experts Say

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New York

Educators must adapt to meet the rapidly changing concept of school desegregation, both in the courts and in the classroom, education-law experts said at a recent conference here.

The U.S. Supreme Court increasingly has sought to limit the powers of federal judges over the efforts of school districts to promote racial balance, notably in a ruling last year involving the Kansas City, Mo., schools.

At the same time, the racial composition of urban school districts has shifted dramatically from the majority-white, minority-black pattern common decades ago, when many desegregation lawsuits were filed.

"The whole notion of desegregation is changing," said A. Reynaldo Contreras, a professor of education at San Francisco State University in California.

Mr. Contreras and other experts discussed those changes this month at the American Educational Research Association conference.

For example, Mr. Contreras said, in many cities in California, an influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants has created schools where minority students who were once rare are now the norm. "They're no longer the minority student. They're the mainstream."

Desegregation efforts must expand to include such areas as teacher preparation, he said, to ensure that schools can adapt to changing student populations. "We have to say that just mixing bodies is not enough to ensure that the nontraditional students will succeed."

Unfair Comparison

Several researchers at the conference said educators must heed lessons from the Supreme Court decision last year in the Kansas City case. In its 5-4 ruling in Missouri v. Jenkins, the high court scaled back what had been one of the most far-reaching desegregation plans in the country. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

Among other provisions, the plan had required the state of Missouri to spend millions of dollars on desegregation programs designed to boost academic achievement among the city's minority students to national averages.

The Supreme Court ruled that the use of such targets was unwarranted in determining whether a once-segregated district had achieved desegregation.

Though the ruling disappointed desegregation advocates and the Kansas City district, state officials hailed it as a welcome curb on costly court mandates.

The high court reversed a series of lower-court rulings that had required, among other mandates, pay raises for district employees.

The use of national test scores in the Kansas City plan was a mistake, said Eugene E. Ewbanks, a professor of education and urban affairs at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Spending varies widely in school districts across the country, he noted, making national averages an unfair benchmark.

Given the current climate in the courts, he said, "I think you have to make a tangible argument for what the district is responsible for."

Integrated Classrooms

Mr. Ewbanks also urged much closer attention to desegregation within classrooms, not just in schools as a whole.

Otherwise, he said, a supposedly integrated school can become in reality two schools: a college-preparatory program dominated by white students along with low-level courses where minority students languish.

In far too many schools, Mr. Ewbanks said, "you have a greater proportion of majority kids taking courses of substance and meaning."

He acknowledged that such additional efforts are expensive, but said they are needed to ensure that desegregation succeeds in fact and not just on paper.

He and other experts speaking here urged more attention to how districts spend money for desegregation programs.

Courts or school districts should consider appointing special monitors to track those funds, suggested Charles J. Russo, an associate professor in the college of education at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. That, he said, would help determine "how much of the dollars are not going to where the greatest need is."

Mr. Ewbanks agreed. "School districts too often have used desegregation funds not to address the problems heaped upon the victims," he said, "but have used these funds for the general welfare."

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