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Court Ends Oversight of Desegregation in Georgia District

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Continuing the trend toward sweeping changes in the nation's approach to school integration, a judge has freed Georgia's largest school system from court control.

In a case that gave rise to a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1992, the federal judge last month declared an end to more than a quarter-century of court oversight of the DeKalb County schools outside Atlanta.

Meanwhile, districts serving Jacksonville, Fla., and Baton Rouge, La., fought to take a new tack in their longstanding desegregation cases. And in Prince George's County, Md., a sharply divided school board chose to disregard court-imposed racial quotas in the district's magnet schools at the risk of jeopardizing millions of dollars in state funds.

In the Georgia case, U.S. District Judge William C. O'Kelley found that DeKalb County had met its responsibilities to rectify the harm caused by its past segregationist policies.

"Nothing this court has done--and nothing this court could do were it to retain jurisdiction indefinitely--can erase the indelible scar on our nation's history left by the legal sanctioning of segregated school systems," the judge wrote in his June 12 order. "This history alone, though, cannot continue to be the driving force of educational policy."

In its 1992 ruling in Freeman v. Pitts, the Supreme Court established that districts could be freed from court supervision in stages and that they need not remedy racial imbalances caused by demographic or other factors beyond their control. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

That ruling released DeKalb County from court control over student assignments, transportation, facilities, and extracurricular activities, but not faculty assignments, funding decisions, and overall educational quality.

Overcoming Past Mistakes

Judge O'Kelley's ruling ended oversight of those remaining areas and declared the district unitary, or free from the effects of its former "dual" educational system.

"To the extent this is a victory, it is a victory for all of us over the mistakes of the past," Superintendent Reynolds Hallford said.

The DeKalb system, just east of Atlanta, serves 86,000 students, 70 percent of them African-American. When the case started in 1968, the district was less than 6 percent black.

Since it was first filed on behalf of a group of black students, the DeKalb lawsuit has taken many twists and turns, including the entry in 1990 by a second group of African-American plaintiffs.

That group was still discussing a possible appeal focusing on disparities in test scores between whites and blacks and in per-pupil spending and teacher experience among schools.

"We believe that the quality of education should be the focus in all of these cases," said Charles Johnson III, the group's lawyer.

Talks Stall in Florida

Hoping for an outcome similar to that in DeKalb County, the Duval County schools in Florida decided last month to press for unitary status based on a revised plan that the school board approved this spring.

Since the district replaced mandatory busing with a voluntary integration plan five years ago, sizable numbers of schools have remained overwhelmingly black or white.

"They've done nothing to eliminate the tragic separation," said T.H. Poole, the administrator of the Jacksonville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. School officials disputed his contention.

The new plan calls for beefing up the district's magnet programs, toughening academic standards, building 14 new schools to relieve crowding, and setting deadlines for meeting racial-balance goals. Enrollment in the fast-growing district is 56 percent white and 38 percent black.

Officials of the 123,000-student district crafted the proposed settlement during three months of court-ordered mediation with the NAACP. Although local NAACP representatives were closely involved in drafting the proposal, the branch's general membership rejected it in May.

The school board, meanwhile, voted to go to court by Oct. 1 to seek full or partial unitary status.

"It boils down to a lot of mistrust," said Cheryl G. Donelan, the chairwoman of the Duval County school board. "In the past the board has not always acted in good faith, and that's hard to overcome."

Magnet Seats Go Empty

In Maryland, debate over magnet programs has also erupted in Prince George's County.

The school board voted 5-4 last month to open 500 slots that had been reserved for nonblacks in county magnet schools to some of the more than 4,000 African-American students on waiting lists to get into them.

The slots had been empty because too few nonblacks applied and school officials did not want to run afoul of a federal district court's racial-balance guidelines by filling them with blacks. The board vowed to step up efforts to recruit whites for the magnet programs, which were launched in 1985.

Nearly 72 percent of the system's 120,000 students are African-American, up from only 22 percent when the court first ordered busing in 1973. It is unclear whether the NAACP, which brought the original suit in 1972, will challenge the decision.

Alvin Thornton, a school board member who opposed the change, said the vote sent a message that the district was abandoning hope of attracting whites to the public schools. "I'm not willing to give up," he said.

He and other opponents also argued that filling the vacancies with blacks would invite the state to cut off its $13 million annual subsidy of the $30 million magnet programs.

But Marcy C. Canavan, the board's president, said that was a risk worth running to make space for black children.

"The seats are going empty," she said. "Our board tried to inject some common sense."

Baton Rouge Seeks Shift

Magnet schools are also at issue in Louisiana, where the East Baton Rouge Parish schools want to abolish mandatory busing and keep students closer to home.

The new system would rely heavily on high-quality magnet programs designed to attract whites to inner-city schools, and direct extra resources to schools that are mainly black.

Since the busing started 15 years ago, the district has lost 14,000 white students and gained 8,800 black students, school officials say. Overall, the 58,300-student system, which serves Baton Rouge and adjoining areas, has been losing 500 students annually for the past five years. It hasn't built a new school since 1974.

"Whether you're looking at pupil performance, student conduct, public support, or the condition of our facilities, our school district is at the point of desperation," said Superintendent Gary Mathews. "Something has to give."

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