Busing Debate Intensifies As Washington’s Signals Change

By Peggy Caldwell — September 07, 1981 9 min read

In East Baton Rouge Parish, La., in the home state of an antibusing stalwart, U. S. Senator Bennett Johnston, approximately 13,000 students rode buses last Monday to the district’s 67 newly desegregated elementary schools.

They joined an estimated 1.5 million other students who are bused for desegregation purposes, despite the contrary aims of the Reagan Administration, Mr. Johnston, and many of his colleagues in the 97th Congress, who have already introduced 19 bills aimed at curtailing court-ordered busing.

After a flurry of lawsuits filed and out-of-court settlements negotiated by the Carter Administration in its waning days, the mood in Washington clearly is changing. It is less clear precisely how that might translate into policy or law, or what the effects would be, particularly for the more than 720 school districts already under state or federal court orders to desegregate.

So far, the shift in politicians’ attitudes appears to have produced more confusion than change. The Administration and Congress seem to be saying one thing; the courts and the states, in many cases, are saying the opposite. Many observers agree that the nation’s desegregation policy remains a patchwork of sometimes vague and inconsistent lower-court decisions, federal administrative directives, and, in a few areas, state and local initiatives.

“One should be very cautious about proclaiming that it’s a new era, for better or for worse,” said Meyer Weinberg, professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a leading desegregation researcher, “It’s very hard to say a new pattern is taking shape yet. It’s a continuation. There’s been a slowdown for years; you could call this a speedup of the slowdown.”

Most Relying on Courts

A few school districts already have acted upon the change in climate. In Montgomery County, Md., the school board recently became the first and, to date, the largest school system in the country to relax a locally initiated desegregation plan. But most districts appear to be relying on the courts, not elected officials, for direction.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, where busing began peacefully under a federal judge’s order, citizens are “not pleased at all,” said Donald Helms, associate superintendent. “But they seem to be taking it in stride.”

“A lot of citizens are looking to Washington for relief,’! Mr. Helms added. ''But whatever comes out of Washington, we know it’s not going to affect us this year.” And school officials in South Bend, Ind., where busing will begin this week under a voluntary consent decree, have been fending off scheduling mishaps, financial problems, legal challenges, and political pressure, said Superintendent James Scamman. ''The national vibes aren’t helping us any.”

But the school board and administration intend to proceed with their plan no matter what, he said. No lawsuit was ever filed in South Bend, but Mr. Scamman believes one would have been-and likely with success-if the voluntary plan had not been developed. “Given the hot breath on the neck, we would rather take the first step,” Mr. Scamman said. ''The board believes very strongly that it’s doing the right thing, regardless of what Ronald Reagan thinks, or Jesse Helms thinks, or the political climate.”

The federal government’s role in desegregation already has been changed somewhat by the Reagan Administration and the current Congress. For example, federal financial aid to districts undergoing desegregation was cut considerably for the coming school year. While Congress left almost intact aid for “magnet schools” and other voluntary approaches, it slashed general desegregation aid from $107 million to $33 million.

In 1982-83, all desegregation aid will be included in block grants. Some observers believe that will1essen the incentive for districts to develop their own desegregation plans.

Furthermore, the Justice Department-the key federal enforcement agency, which has been a plaintiff in most of the major desegregation lawsuits since 1976---is now committed to seeking desegregation remedies less drastic than mandatory cross-district busing.

But civil-rights activists maintain that busing is the only solution in some communities with a history of officially-enforced racial separation. And while they expect litigation to continue, if at a slower pace than in the past, the activists fear that desegregation efforts will falter without the weight of the Justice Department behind them.

But, aside from Attorney General William French Smith’s assertions that the Justice Department will enforce civil-rights laws but seek remedies other than mandatory busing, Reagan Administration officials have given little indication of what they expect from school districts.

“We’ve heard general rhetoric, but no clearset policies,” said civil-rights lawyer William L. Taylor, director of Catholic University’s Center for National Policy Review.

No Clear Signals

The Justice Department’s recent actions in desegregation cases have done little to clarify the Reagan Administration’s position, observers say. They cite two recent developments, both in Texas and both in late August. The Justice Department negotiated an out-of- court settlement with the Port Arthur school system calling for voluntary “magnet” schools and some boundary changes, but not for racial balancing of each school through cross-district busing.

Six days later, however, in Corpus Christi, less than 300 miles down the Gulf coast, the department’s lawyers urged a federal judge to reject the local school board’s request that it be permitted to end its four-year-old program of cross-district busing for racial balance.

And in the case of Chicago-considered by some observers to be an important test of the new Administration’s attitude toward school desegregation-the Justice Department in late August endorsed the same desegregation plan it had rejected barely a month before.

The plan, developed by the Chicago school board under the terms of an out-of-court settlement, would leave intact about 250 all-minority schools. It also gives the district until 1983 to try desegregating entirely through voluntary transfers without mandatory student re-assignments as a backup.

State and local school officials, said a Carter Administration holdover in the Justice Department, “are probably as puzzled as we (staff) are” about such mixed signals.

Recent decisions from the lower federal courts offer little more guidance on what constitutes compliance with civil-rights laws and Constitutional equal-protection guarantees.

A federal judge in Texas ruled this summer that the Houston schools need not bus youngsters involuntarily, in part because he found it would not be “practicable.”

Similarly, another federal district judge ruled that the Dallas schools must be desegregated through some means other than busing.

But also this summer, a judge in Buffalo ordered the busing of about 3,200 black children to balance the schools’ enrollments. And the Nashville metropolitan district was thrown into chaos late last month when a federal appellate court and an associate justice of the Supreme Court ordered the district to delay a new student-assignment plan that would have resulted in substantial resegregation of the primary grades.

The U. S. Supreme Court as a whole last addressed the busing issue in 1979, when it ruled that district-wide busing could be justified where a school system had been found guilty of intentional segregation.

The some 720 school districts under federal court order to desegregate include more than half of the largest 100 districts, according to statistics gathered by the U. S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Education and Human Development Policy. Another dozen big-city cases are now in court.

At least 1,160 other districts, according to the Office for Civil Rights, either have negotiated desegregation agreements with the federal government-most under threat of lawsuits or administrative sanctioll&---or have instituted voluntary plans to qualify for federal funds under the Emergency School Aid Act.

But the cross-district busing that incites the passions of politicians and parents has been ordered in only a small minority of the 1,880 districts desegregated by federal court order or administrative agreement.

At most, estimates the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, 3.6 percent of American schoolchildren are involuntarily bused to achieve desegregation. About 13,000 of the nation’s approximately 16,000 school districts are so small or have so few minority students that school segregation is not a problem. Compounding the confusion among the relatively few districts with the problem of racial isolation are legal challenges to state and local desegregation initiatives.

California was the site of the most widely publicized ofthree recent challenges to the authority of state and local governments to go beyond the desegregation requirements of federal courts. In March, the State Supreme Court upheld results of a 1979 referendum that, in effect, repealed the state’s strict desegregation standards. The Los Angeles school board quickly dismantled its busing plan.

Although that decision does not apply to districts outside California, many citizens and school board members elsewhere mistakenly took it to be a precedent for dismantling busing plans in their own communities.

Other States in Court

On the other hand, Seattle school officials and the Illinois State Board of Education have been in court recently, defending their authority to reassign students for racial balance.

“I don’t think the state board is going to back off something they feel very strongly about,” said Julia Quinn Dempsey, an attorney for the Illinois state board.

In light of recent federal court decisions finding states legally and financially liable when they did not act to prevent illegal segregation, Ms. Dempsey believes Illinois should retain strict guidelines to protect itself.

“That the mood in Washington and around the country is the way it is now doesn’t mean there won’t be a totally different mood five years from now that’ll come back to haunt you,” she said.

Desegregation advocates, meanwhile, say they will challenge in court any federal legislation to curtail busing. And, they say, they will rely more heavily than they have in the past on private groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored . People (N.A.A.C.P.), and on the courts.

“Litigation will continue, but at a slower pace,” said Catholic University’s Mr. Taylor. “The resources of the Justice Department, and its ability to bring suit, have been a significant part of the efforts to enforce Brown.” (Brown us. Board of Education was the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing “separate but equal” public schools.)

While a majority of the nation’s largest school districts, where minority students tend to be heavily concentrated, have been affected by desegregation orders, civil-rights activists estimate that at least half of all minority students in the U. S. are still in “racially isolated” schools, defined as schools where 90 percent or more of the students are minority members.

This year, lawyers at N.A.A.C.P. national headquarters in New York are receiving an unprecedented number of requests for help with local desegregation cases, said Charles Carter, associate general counsel.

“People don’t believe they can count on government for help anymore,” Mr. Carter said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1981 edition of Education Week