Judge Rules Ed. Practices Led To Segregation in Ill. District

By Peter Schmidt — November 10, 1993 3 min read

A federal judge last week found the Rockford, Ill., school district guilty of racial discrimination and school resegregation based, in part, on its use of some educational practices previously viewed by the courts as racially neutral.

In a landmark 537-page ruling, U.S. Magistrate P. Michael Mahoney found that the district had “consistently and massively’’ racially segregated students through a long list of practices, including ability grouping and the operation of Montessori, alternative, magnet, bilingual, and other special programs that tended to serve racially skewed groups of students.

The opinion also faulted the district for its drawing of school boundaries, its use of open enrollment, and its racially skewed distribution of teachers, as well as for differences in the transportation, facilities, and equipment provided to black and white students.

The magistrate called the voluminous testimony presented before him “the story of a school district that, at times, has committed such open acts of discrimination as to be cruel, and committed others with such subtlety as to raise discrimination to an art form.’'

“We believe that similar educational victimization is pervasive in virtually every mid-size school system in the country,’' said Robert C. Howard, a lawyer for the plaintiffs--minority students and a coalition called People Who Care.

Teacher Contract Vulnerable

If granted final approval, as expected, by Judge Stanley Roszkowski of U.S. District Court, the magistrate’s findings would clear the way for the district to abrogate parts of its teachers’ contract, such as seniority provisions, that stand in the way of certain desegregation remedies.

The plaintiffs in the case had taken the case to trial in part because a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs and district could not agree to remedies that violate the teachers’ contract without a formal ruling the district had discriminated. (See Education Week, April 14, 1993.)

If Judge Roszkowski agrees, “that hurdle will have been gotten over,’' said Stephen G. Katz, the lead lawyer for district-employee unions. “They will have their liability finding.’'

Mr. Katz said that he will try to persuade Judge Roszkowski to amend portions of the magistrate’s report, and that he plans to fight the district if it tries to override any more of the contract than necessary to remedy vestiges of discrimination.

Educational Quality Evaluated

Along with proving discriminatory intent in a wide assortment of practices that appeared racially neutral, the lawyers for the plaintiffs also persuaded the magistrate to broaden the interpretation of a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Freeman v. Pitts, a 1992 decision involving the DeKalb County, Ga., school system, the High Court held that the quality of the education a district provides to all its students could be evaluated in determining whether the district had complied with desegregation orders in good faith, and should be released from court supervision. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

The Rockford plaintiffs took that logic and argued that the court should look for disparities in educational quality in determining whether a district had intended to discriminate.

None of the parties involved last week expressed surprise about the magistrate’s decision. As of May, they had already entered into an interim agreement laying out guidelines for the case settlement and remedies. (See Education Week, May 26, 1993.)

William L. Bowen, the district superintendent, said many of the remedies sought by the plaintiffs already are in place in the district, which has a 27,000-student enrollment that is 73 percent white, 23 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Asian.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1993 edition of Education Week as Judge Rules Ed. Practices Led To Segregation in Ill. District