Appeals Court Ends Commission Overseeing Detroit Desegregation

By Cassandra Spratling — May 09, 1984 4 min read

Detroit--A three-judge panel overseeing this city’s school-desegregation case will terminate a commission that was established in the mid-1970’s to monitor improvements ordered in the 14-year-old battle.

The judges’ decision, reached late last month, also calls for the elimination of court-ordered requirements to improve student conduct and school-community relations.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several community organizations accused the judges of “copping out” and said they feared that the decision would draw the case to a close.

“Once you have withdrawn oversight responsibility, there is no way of monitoring whether your orders are being obeyed,” said Jesse Goodwin, chairman of the education committee of the Detroit naacp “Again, we feel [the court] is copping out.”

Mr. Goodwin added that the naacp plans to appeal the judges’ ruling.

The judges said it is simply time for the court to begin bowing out. “The Detroit school board no longer needs a federal court to tell it what to do,” said Chief U.S. District Judge John Feikens.

Longstanding Case

The controversial case began in 1970 when the naacp brought suit against the Detroit Board of Education and the state of Michigan, charging that they contributed to racial segregation in the city’s school system.

The case, Milliken v. Bradley, produced two important U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but minimal desegregation, as student enrollment in the Detroit school system, like that in urban districts across the country, became increasingly black.

In 1970, some 64 percent of Detroit’s student population was black and 35 percent was white. In 1983, the latest year for which information is available, the student population was 87 percent black and 10.5 percent white.

In 1972, the late U.S. District Judge Stephen Roth decided that a desegregation plan limited to the city would be inadequate and ordered a metropolitan busing plan, which included Detroit and 52 suburban districts.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the metropolitan plan in a 5-to-4 decision, holding that there was insufficient proof that the suburbs had contributed to student segregation in the Detroit system.

The following year, U.S. District Judge Robert DeMascio, who was assigned to the case following Judge Roth’s death, ordered the busing of more than 21,000 students within the city and demanded that the school system make improvements in eight other areas, including reading instruction, student conduct, counseling and guidance, community relations, vocational education, bilingual education, teacher training, and inservice training.

Second Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled again in the Detroit case in 1977, upholding the authority of the district court to order educational-improvement programs to remedy the effects of racial segregation and to force the state to help pay for those programs.

In Detroit, the most visible evidence of that order are four newly constructed vocational-technical centers and the upgrading of a fifth skills-training center.

Judge DeMascio withdrew from the case in 1980 at the suggestion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which was considering a request by the naacp for expansion of the busing program. A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan was assigned by blind lottery to assume jurisdiction over the lawsuit.

Mandate Not Pursued

Many in Detroit contend that the three-judge panel never aggressively pursued the case. The naacp and officials of the 10,000-member Detroit Federation of Teachers say the judges ignored frequent reports from the court-established monitoring commission that were critical of the Detroit schools.

The commission reported repeatedly, for example, that Detroit school officials had not properly implemented a student code of conduct that had been ordered by the court in 1976.

It also frequently noted that some reports submitted by the school system to the court were inaccurate.

Appeal Planned

Mr. Goodwin said the naacp will appeal on the grounds that the court has improperly construed a legal “stipulation” that was approved by the parties to the suit in 1981.

Among other things, he explained, the agreement set up timetables for the phasing out of the eight court-ordered educational improvements.

Inservice training of teachers and testing of students were to be phased out by the 1982-83 school year, and the remaining six improvements--involving reading, counseling and guidance, student conduct, community relations, vocational education, and bilingual education--by the 1987-88 school year “except as otherwise required by law.”

“What is shocking is that the judges are arbitrarily getting rid of two of the improvements, those regarding student conduct and school-community relations,” Mr. Goodwin said.

“Even more shocking than that, neither party to the suit ever filed a motion seeking such action.”

Basis of Decision

Mr. Goodwin said the judges based their decision to repeal the school-community relations provision on a “small paragraph” in a 1982 state law dealing with the structural organization of the Detroit school system. The paragraph, he said, encouraged the system to set up a program to upgrade school-community relations.

“They’re really straining the meaning of that provision in the law to get out of the business of monitoring the case,” Mr. Goodwin said.

Mr. Goodwin added that the judges explained their decision to do away with the educational improvement regarding student conduct by simply stating that such decisions should not be left up to federal courts.

“The school board, parents, and the teachers have got to insist on discipline,” Judge Feikens wrote for the panel. “We cannot do for them what they have to do for themselves.”

The judge said the panel will continue to receive annual reports on the other components, and recommended that the commission become a part of the Michigan Department of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1984 edition of Education Week as Appeals Court Ends Commission Overseeing Detroit Desegregation