Reaction Mixed to High Court’s Ruling On School Desegregation in Oklahoma

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong — January 30, 1991 5 min read

Washington--In suggesting limits on the courts’ role in school desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Oklahoma City ruling this month delighted busing foes, alarmed civil-rights activists, and prompted warnings that school obligations did not end overnight.

In a 5-to-3 ruling, the Court ruled that school districts that were once racially segregated by law may be freed from court-ordered desegregation plans if they have done their best to eradicate the vestiges of their discriminatory systems and met court orders. (See Education Week, Jan. 23, 1991.)

Court supervision of schools’ desegregation efforts need not “operate in perpetuity,” the Court ruled, overturning a federal appeals court that had rebuffed efforts to decrease busing in Oklahoma City.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, “forced busing will not be a permanent part of the American landscape,” said Clint Bolick, director of the Landmark Legal Foundation Center for Civil Rights, which opposes mandatory busing.

However, the Justices refused to lift the 18-year-old court order imposing a desegregation scheme that included mandatory busing in the Oklahoma City schools or to define the meaning of “unitary,” or fully integrated, systems.

Instead, in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (Case No. 89-1080), the Court told a lower court to determine whether the school board “had complied in good faith with the desegregation decree” and if “vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable.”

After deciding whether the 1972 order can be dissolved, the Court added, the lower court can review a challenge by a group of black citizens to a district plan to end mandatory busing in grades 1 through 4 in favor of a system of neighborhood schools.

Nonetheless, “we consider it a victory,” said Michael Carrier, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City schools. “Oklahoma City is absolutely convinced that upon a rehearing the federal judge will rule that the district has met the criteria.”

“We contend that we’ve done everything that we can” to promote integration, he added.

Ronald L. Day, a lawyer for the school district, said the Supreme Court found the appellate-court standards unfair. “The appeals-court ruling would have kept school districts such as ours under federal court order until the end of time,” he asserted.

The Supreme Court rejected the appellate court’s reasoning that school districts must prove they suffered “grievous wrong” before winning relief from desegregation decrees.

Nonetheless, the High Court rejected claims that short-term compliance with a desegregation mandate is sufficient, said Julius L. Chambers, director of the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“We’re encouraged,” he said, “that the Supreme Court hasn’t abandoned its commitment to Brown v. Board of Education,” the historic 1954 decision striking down separate-but-equal school systems.

Yet, added Mr. Chambers, who had argued before the Supreme Court in October that once-segregated schools must remain under court jurisdiction until all ill effects of racial separation are eliminated, “the ruling, as it applies to Oklahoma City, did raise some serious concerns.”

Noting that “virtually all-black schools” resulted from the district’s alteration of its busing plan, he said, “It’s clear that this school board hasn’t eliminated the vestiges of discrimination ‘to the extent practicable.”’

The National Education Association also predicted “the district court will agree that continuing judicial supervision is necessary.”

K. Gary Sebelius, a lawyer for the Topeka, Kan., school system, which has a desegregation case pending before the Supreme Court, said Topeka officials “are encouraged by the decision, although it left unanswered some questions that we thought should be answered.”

“It seems to us the court could have addressed the issue of unitary status and defined it with more precision,” he said.

Added Christine May, a spokesman for the DeKalb County, Ga., school district, which, too, has a desegregation case before the Supreme Court, “We’re gratified the court is moving” toward a better explanation of what desegregation obligations a district has after it has attained unitary status.

Denver school officials, with a third desegregation case pending before the High Court, declined comment.

The Justices had not said by late last week whether they would hear arguments in any of the three cases.

William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Reagan Administration who fought for less court authority over schools, said he thought the Justices had “laid down a pretty clear set of standards” for integration.

In essence, he added, “there’s still a pretty heavy burden to meet, but, as long as school districts meet it, then the Court says, ‘We’re not going to keep them in the penalty box forever.”’

He described it as a victory for anti-busing forces. “I think the whole infatuation this country has had with forced busing has proved to be unproductive in most cases and counterproductive in many of the large cities,” Mr. Reynolds said.

By allowing schools to concentrate more on education, and less on transportation and other issues, the ruling “will have, over time, a very positive impact,” he said.

Amy Casner, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, which is currently involved in 470 desegregation proceedings, said the Bush Administration is reviewing its cases in light of the Supreme Court ruling and is advising schools to examine theirs.

The department will advise districts that think their desegregation decrees should be lifted and may suggest in a given case that a court’s role end, she said. But, she added, “we’re not going to have an active lobbying effort” to get desegregation orders dissolved.

She also discounted claims that the Bush Administration has drastically altered its course from Reagan Administration policy.

“We weren’t here in the Reagan Administration,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to compare us.”

Other lawyers observed that the decision signaled no drastic changes.

“My own opinion is that there’s nothing particularly earthshaking in this decision,” said Walter A. Smith, a lawyer for the Council of the Great City Schools. “I think we’re largely where we were before.”

David S. Tatel, a colleague of Mr. Smith’s and a civil-right official in the Carter Administration, agreed. “The decision is a very important one because it really does not dramatically change course,” he said.

Ultimately, he added, “I think it shows how strong the principles of Brown are. Even this conservative Court wasn’t willing to depart from them.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Reaction Mixed to High Court’s Ruling On School Desegregation in Oklahoma