Acting in the nation’s most closely watched school-desegregation case, a federal appeals court ruled late last week that the Norfolk, Va., public-school district may abandon its 14-year-old busing plan in favor of a system of neighborhood schools.
The unanimous Feb. 6 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is expected to prompt similar challenges to court-ordered busing plans across the country. It was also viewed as a major victory for the Reagan Administration, which intervened in the case on behalf of the Norfolk school board.
In papers filed with the court in December 1984, William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, argued that “court supervision of our public schools under aged court decrees must come to an end on a demonstrated record of continuing good-faith compliance.” John V. Wilson, a spokesman for Mr. Reynolds, declined to comment on the court’s ruling.
Henry L. Marsh 3rd, former mayor of Richmond and the lawyer for the black parents who filed the suit, also could not be reached for comment. The plaintiffs are widely expected either to request a rehearing before the full panel of judges sitting on the Fourth Circuit Court or to take the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawsuit, Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk, raises one of the last major unsettled questions of school-desegregation law: Must a formerly segregated school district continue to bus students indefinitely even though it has complied fully with court orders and is now considered “unitary’?
When busing was first ordered in Norfolk in 1971, the district enrolled about 56,000 students, of whom 60 percent were white and 40 percent were black. By 1983, total enrollment had dropped to 34,000, with the racial composition of the student population reversing itself to 60 percent black and 40 percent white. The district was declared unitary in 1975 and was released from court orders, but busing continued.
Concern over “white flight” prompted the Norfolk school board-including one of its three black members-to vote in February 1983 to abandon busing in its elementary grades in favor of a return to neighborhood schools. The proposal is also supported by Gene Carter, the district’s first black superintendent.
Under the proposal, 10 of the district’s 36 elementary schools would become more than 90 percent black, compared with 2 schools more than 80 percent black under the busing plan.
In July 1984, the federal district judge who first ordered busing in 1971 approved the board’s neighborhood- school proposal. The board delayed implementation of the plan, pending the decision by the Fourth I Circuit Court.
The Norfolk board’s next meeting is scheduled for Feb 20. According to a spokesman for the district’s superintendent, it is expected to decide at that time whether to implement the plan beginning with the new school year next September.
A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1986 edition of Education Week