Federal Civil Rights Chief Disavows Busing, May File Suits to Upgrade Minority Schools

By Peggy Caldwell & Eileen White — October 12, 1981 5 min read

The Justice Department will seek to remedy the ills of segregated schools by providing minority students with “an education of comparable quality,” rather than a desegregated school environment, according to a Reagan Administration official.

Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, who heads the department’s civil-rights division, said the Administration would “seek a desegregation remedy that does not depend on court-ordered busing.”

This would include “voluntary student transfer programs; magnet schools; enhanced curriculum requirements; [and] in-service training programs for teachers and administrators,” he said.

‘Uneven Educational Treatment’

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times last week, Mr. Reynolds also said that the Administration would bring lawsuits against school boards not on the basis of “separateness"--the charge on which most desegregation lawsuits are based--but on the grounds that school officials intentionally provide minority students with an inferior education.

“Uneven treatment at the educational level suggests a different kind of constitutional violation than the one dealing with separateness,” he told The Washington Post in a subsequent interview.

He added, however, that the new charges would be based, as most desegregation lawsuits are, on the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The department is investigating “several situations” of this type, and the first lawsuit may be filed in several weeks, he said. He did not identify the school systems involved.

He also said that lawsuits filed on this basis would be the result of complaints to the Justice Department.

Most of the school-desegregation lawsuits filed in federal courts in the past 10 years--since the U.S. Supreme Court first sanctioned mandatory busing in the 1971 Charlotte, N.C., case--have resulted from such complaints.

A spokesman for the civil-rights division of the Justice Department said Mr. Reynolds was not available for comment. The spokesman, John V. Wilson, added that the Administration might incorporate a change of position into the briefs it has filed at the appellate level in existing lawsuits.

Mr. Wilson said the emphasis, however, would be on new lawsuits: “We’ve never before filed a suit solely to address inferior education and facilities in black schools.”

Justice Department attorneys, who asked not to be identified, said they were not aware of any school systems the department planned to sue under the new charges.

Mr. Reynolds’s remarks prompted speculation among educators about the meaning of the new position.

“It sure sounds to me like he’s talking about ‘separate but equal’,’' said an official of a large school district in the Southeast who asked that he not be named because his system is involved in a desegregation suit.

The “separate but equal” phrase refers to a position taken by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case, Plessy v. Ferguson. In its ruling, the Court upheld state laws that prohibited black and white students from attending the same schools.

That ruling was nullified by the landmark 1954 Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which found such laws unconstitutional.

Underpinning the decision, which paved the way for the integration of the public schools, was the assumption that white school boards and legislatures would never spend enough money on black schools to provide students with an adequate education.

As desegregation law has developed, the plaintiffs have not needed to prove that minority schools were inferior or that school boards discriminated against them in expending resources. Proof of official intent to segregate through gerrymandered boundaries and other mechanisms has been sufficient to obtain busing orders in many communities.

The approach suggested by Mr. Reynolds is novel in that it would hinge on the educational results of official neglect, not on racial segregation itself. And unlike desegregation law, Mr. Reynolds’ approach would make no distinction between de jure segregation--that caused by official action--and de facto segregation caused by housing patterns.

Many civil-rights activists, however, including the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), consider “enhancement of minority schools” no substitute for desegregation.

The Justice Department recently approved an out-of-court settlement in a Chicago desegregation lawsuit that gives the school system until 1983 to attempt desegregation entirely through voluntary student transfers. It would leave intact about 250 all-minority schools, for which Chicago would be required to provide funds for supplemental services.

One naacp lawyer has attacked the Chicago plan as “keeping black kids in their place but giving them a few crumbs. That’s nothing more than the old doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.”

Mr. Reynolds referred to the Chicago desegregation plan in a speech there on Sept. 27. He said that although “there are schools in the system that will remain racially identifiable under the desegregation plan...the board has undertaken compensatory programs to enhance the quality of education provided in those schools in order to guarantee equal educational opportunity to all students in the system. “Experience teaches us that blacks in a segregated school environment more often than not receive inferior educational attention,” he said in the same address. Nevertheless, he said the Administration is “concerned, quite frankly, much less with student relocation than we are with student education.”

In announcing the new Administration position, Mr. Reynolds made no allusion to the massive seven-year study of school desegregation conducted for the federal government by a team of researchers headed by Willis D. Hawley of Vanderbilt University. That study, made public last month, identified effective strategies for school desegregation and concluded that if the proper steps are taken, desegregation can improve both race relations and academic performance. (See Education Week, Sept. 21.)

Mr. Hawley, dean of the university’s George Peabody College for Teachers and head of the 16-member research group that compiled the nine-volume study, said recently that “we ought to encourage the development of effective minority schools. Minority schools are likely to be part of our future. But to say you can have effective segregated schools is not to say they are more effective than effective desegregated schools.”

Most educators and public officials, he said, “tend to measure effectiveness narrowly, by test scores in reading and math. That’s only part of education in our society. There is some evidence that minority children who attend desegregated schools go on to desegregated higher education, non-traditional jobs, and the professions more often that children who attend segregated schools. There is evidence,” he continued, “that attending desegregated schools builds the confidence, networks, and self-esteem that allow minorities to compete.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 1981 edition of Education Week as Federal Civil Rights Chief Disavows Busing, May File Suits to Upgrade Minority Schools