Seattle Initiative To Curb Busing Apparently Wins

By William Snider — November 22, 1989 3 min read

Church and civil-rights leaders in Seattle were preparing last week to file a lawsuit against the city challenging the constitutionality of an anti-busing initiative that apparently won approval from voters.

Although the results of the Nov. 7 vote will not be certified until this week, the initiative appeared headed for a narrow victory as election officials continued to tally ballots cast by absentee voters.

If upheld by the courts, the initiative would freeze new city funding for the Seattle schools unless the school board agreed by the end of this year to dismantle its “controlled choice” student-assignment plan and replace it with systemwide open enrollment.

To receive increases in city aid, the board would also have to agree to prepare environmental-impact statements before closing schools.

The initiative would also require the city to earmark 6 percent of its sales-tax revenues--roughly $4.5-million annually--for school-improvement programs if the board adopted the new policies.

The board decided last week not to vote on the policies until its Dec. 20 meeting, when one new member will have taken office.

Observers said that three members of the new board have publicly supported the initiative and three have opposed it. The board member who holds the potential swing vote, Ken Eastlack, would not say which way he would vote, but said he considered the initiative unconstitutional.

School officials expect that, in the short term, the initiative would affect only $150,000 in funding that the current mayor has proposed for a district-administered program aiding families of at-risk children.

Supporters and opponents of the initiative agree its ultimate effect on the district will not be known until the courts decide its legality and, if it is upheld, interpret its language.

The proposal, experts say, raises two major legal issues: whether it infringes on the city council’s governance powers, and whether it violates the civil rights of the district’s minority students.

Both issues are expected to be the subject of the lawsuit being prepared jointly by the Seattle Council of Churches and the Seattle branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It was not clear last week whether the city itself would have legal standing to challenge the initiative, since it would also bear the brunt of defending it.

Several city officials, including the newly elected mayor, Norman B. Rice, have taken public stands opposing the initiative.

Supporters of the measure have adopted a conciliatory tone and said they would not challenge the school board it it decided to phase in the new policies over several years.

The initiative contains several provisions that would encourage voluntary integration in the district’s schools, but its supporters said it would bar mandatory student assignments for promoting racial balance.

School officials would generally be required to grant the first choices of all parents in school assignments except in cases where space limitations did not allow such accommodation.

Under the controlled-choice plan put in place this fall, the district currently earmarks seats for white and minority students at each school, and grants choices that meet the district’s racial-balance guidelines.

That approach was adopted in an effort to reduce student busing under a desegregation plan adopted by the district in 1977--a plan that was unusual in that it was adopted voluntarily by the district without any court involvement.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal battle, both sides in the controversy have claimed a victory in the electoral results.

Opponents of the initiative said its narrow margin of victory would blunt political pressures on the busing question. Supporters, meanwhile, maintained that they had succeeded in focusing public attention on the need to reform the school system and had ended years of complacency about the need for mandatory busing.

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as Seattle Initiative To Curb Busing Apparently Wins