Report May Help End Busing in Md. County

By Caroline Hendrie — July 09, 1997 3 min read

In a report that could hasten the demise of a quarter-century-old desegregation case in Prince George’s County, Md., a panel of court-appointed experts concluded last week that the school district no longer appears to discriminate against blacks.

The four-member panel appointed by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte said the district’s extensive network of magnet programs was significantly easing racial isolation among its 125,000 students.

But in a finding that is likely to fuel ongoing local and national debates over the issue, the panel said mandatory race-based busing in the district is proving only marginally effective in lessening school segregation, and in some instances is making it worse.

Judge Messitte commissioned the report last fall as he considers whether to lift court oversight of the suburban Washington school system. A trial in the case is scheduled to open Oct. 15.

School officials said they hoped the report would bolster the chances of reaching a settlement before then.

Money a Sticking Point

The other parties to the suit are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the county government, which is the district’s primary funding source.

“The report provides an opportunity to negotiate a deal,” said Thomas Hendershot, the vice chairman of the school board.

The school board wants to end the mandatory busing of about 11,500 students, restore neighborhood schools, and maintain the system’s voluntary magnet programs. But to do that, it says it needs $500 million over six years to upgrade facilities and instruction. That’s a bill that the county says it simply can’t pay.

“If an out-of-court settlement means that we have to pay $500 million, that’s not going to happen,” said Sean D. Wallace, a deputy county attorney.

County officials are looking to the state capital for the cash. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose political roots lie in the county, has long advocated an end to forced busing there.

Ray Feldman, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, said last week that he could not comment specifically on the $500 million plan, but said Mr. Glendening supports extra state aid for the district “to help with this transition.”

Meanwhile, a lawyer for the NAACP, which brought the case in 1972, said the group remains concerned about the neighborhood school plan. Patricia A. Brannan of the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson said the plan is too vague and may be impractically pricey as well.

“There may be room for some discussion,” she said. “But at this point, we await a more thoroughly detailed plan.”

In last week’s report, the panel said officials had complied with six of eight specific court decrees in the case, in areas ranging from programs for the gifted to extra resources for nearly all-black schools.

“The overall response from the panel seems to indicate that the school district has in fact met its obligations to make sure that there are no vestiges of discrimination in its programs,” Superintendent Jerome Clark said in releasing the report last week.

Little Effect From Busing

Although the district failed to meet racial-balance targets in student assignment, the panel said, officials did all that was practical in light of massive demographic shifts.

Since 1972, enrollment has flip-flopped from roughly three-quarters white to three-quarters black.

On the issue of faculty assignment, the panel questioned whether the district had pressed hard enough to bring individual schools within agreed-upon racial-balance guidelines. Even in this area, though, the panel voiced doubt that the district could have done much better given such constraints as faculty seniority rights.

On the question of busing, the panel said the district’s mandatory plan on average was yielding “a small improvement in racial balance.”

But in middle schools with above-average proportions of black students, the busing was actually boosting African-American enrollment by 6 percent.

Robert E. Shoenberg, an educational consultant and former University of Maryland administrator, chaired the panel. Other members were Robert Peterkin, the director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University’s graduate school of education; Christine H. Rossell, a desegregation expert and political scientist at Boston University; and William T. Trent, the associate chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week