$144-Million Desegregation Effort Imperiled
An unexpected consequence of the new federal block-grants program may be the reduction or the elimination of voluntary school-desegregation projects in school districts throughout the country.
Officials from some of the 43 states in which school districts received more than $144 million in federal funds this year under the Emergency School Aid Act (esaa) report that the inclusion of esaa in the block-grants program has placed desegregation projects in jeopardy.
"It's an open question about what might happen now regarding school desegregation, whether the loss of federal funding will destabilize successful school desegregation programs," said Michael J. Alves, project director for desegregation assistance in the Massachusetts education department.
"The cuts in federal funding could not come at a worse time for states," he said.
The esaa program, which was created during the Nixon Administration, provides funds to support desegregation programs other than the mandatory busing of students. The program has paid the salaries of state and local desegregation coordinators, enabled local officials to set up magnet schools, supported plans to redraw school boundaries and to pair or cluster groups of schools, and underwritten special curricula and activities for students in integrated schools.
The funds support desegregation projects in 395 school districtsthis year. Although the esaa program helps school districts that have been required by court order to implement desegregation plans, the availability of the funds also has enabled approximately 120 school districts to desegregate voluntarily, according to data provided by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights.
Next year, urban school districts from Boston to Seattle that have received multi-million-dollar desegregation grants under the seven-year-old law will be without federal support for voluntary desegregation--as will smaller school districts in such diverse locales as University City, Ohio, and Dothan, Ala.,
"There is one big problem that no one seems to know what to do about--the desegregation aid," said R. Douglas Dopp, federal liaison representative for the Connecticut state education agency.
"All of a sudden the money has disappeared; it was wiped out overnight. Where is that money going to come from? There's no getting around it, this is going to be a real problem," he said.
School systems in Connecticut, including Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, are receiving more than $2 million in federal desegregation aid this year, according to the U.S. Education Department.
In Delaware, the four school districts in New Castle County that educate 60 percent of the state's public-school students received nearly $3 million in esaa money last year, reports Randall L. Broyles, the assistant state superintendent of education. When the block-grants funds are distributed next year, those school districts will lose two thirds of their funds, he said.
In fact, the entire state of Delaware will receive less block-grantmoney than the New Castle County districts are receiving in desegregation funds alone, said Mr. Broyles.
"Most of the [lost federal] money will not be made up. [The school districts] will be unable to provide the basic-skills personnel that helped desegregation succeed. We will not have the personnel [at the state level] to provide the services that are essential to carry out desegregation," he said.
A similar situation exists in Missouri, where two school systems--St. Louis and Kansas City--are receiving more federal desegregation aid this year than is contained in the entire state block grant next year, according to Otis G. Baker, the state education department's federal programs coordinator.
The elimination of the esaa program has become the focus of a debate between Reagan Administration officials on the one hand, who say they believe states should become more intimately involved in designing local desegregation projects, and state desegregation officials, who are concerned that the loss of federal funds may result in desegregation litigation that forces states to pay when school districts cannot afford to implement desegregation plans.
"The block-grants program allows the states to have primary responsibility for deciding what to do regarding school desegregation," said William J. Clohan, undersecretary of the U.S. Education Department.
"The impact of a lot of court-ordered busing has been [to transport children] across [school] district lines. [esaa] has always been a federal-to-local program. When you have states totally left out of the picture, it doesn't allow states to be involved in long-range planning.'' The new program, he said, "will allow the states to become a part of the solution."
That position was disputed by Mr. Alves of Massachusetts. "In 1978, esaa was amended to provide matching funds to states that provided desegregation programs," he said. "The federal government was encouraging states to take a more active role, but the federal government was working with the states. There was a clear movement for a partnership between the states and the federal government."
"I interpret what [the current Administration] has done as taking the federal government out of school desegregation for all practical purposes," he said. And he contended that such a policy is a misguided one because "historically, the federal role came about as a result of default of responsibility by the states."
Mr. Alves said many states are unlikely to pursue a more forceful role in ensuring students a desegregated education because "states have been politically vulnerable to enforcing desegregation."
He added that states may not be able to afford the desegregation staffs needed to take a more active role because the salaries of 90 percent of state desegregation officials are currently paid by the federal government under esaa and the $37-million civil-rights training program, which is funded under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The civil-rights training program, which helps school districts offset the costs incurred under court-ordered desegregation plans, would also be eliminated next year, if the Congress accepts a new Reagan Administration proposal. The President would rescind the program's 1982 funding and "allow" school systems to fund the program under their already-reduced block-grant allotments.
Mr. Alves also claimed that the repeal of the two programs would leave states more open to inclusion in desegregation lawsuits against school districts. "In the future, the only way a school district is going to get significant amounts of outside funding for desegregation programs will be to end up in litigation," he said.
He described a hypothetical situation in which "a school desegregation lawsuit emerges in a district, and the question comes up as to how much school desegregation is going to cost. Historically, the federal government would support a voluntary or court-ordered desegregation plan, but now where would outside funding come from? From the states, not voluntarily, but through litigation."
Mr. Alves pointed to several recent desegregation lawsuits in which he said states have been found financially liable. "In the St. Louis case, Missouri's share of the cost is $11 million, according to the court. In Ohio, court decisions against Columbus and Cleveland found that the state was also liable and therefore should also pay for the remedy. Tennessee is being brought into the Nashville case; Indiana is being told to help pay for the cost of desegregation in Indianapolis. I also expect the state of Illinois to be brought into the Chicago case," he said.
He said that in Massachusetts, which will lose $1.8 million in esaa funds next year, the state board of education has asked the state legislature for an increase in state desegregation funds. The state, under a 1974 desegregation law known as Chapter 636, is providing more than $8 million in desegregation aid to school districts this year, he said.
Of the other 49 state officials interviewed, all said they thought their states could not make up of the desegregation funds that will be lost through block grants.
"I don't anticipate that [the state will make up the funds]," said Mona Bailey, assistant state superintendent of instruction in Washington. "We have a tremendous shortfall," she said, echoing the responses of many state officials.
Officials in at least five states said, however, that part of the states' 20-percent share of the block-grants funds may be distributed to local school districts to make up for their losses. Those states include Texas, Ohio, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
In California, the loss of more than $19 million in esaa money that went to 29 school districts may prompt the state education department to relinquish its entire 20-percent share to local school districts, according to Charles Cooke, the federal-programs coordinator for the state education department.
Another method of making up the loss of funds was urged by speakers at a meeting last month of the National Committee for School Desegregation, which was attended by state and local desegregation officials.
"The only possible way to deal educational opportunity in the Wisconsin state education agency, said his 10-member staff had been able to influence the state's formula so that school districts undergoing desegregation may fare better than they originally had expected to.
"We basically have the same value systems when it comes to equity for children," Mr. Strother said of his staff. "So we got together and came up with a strategy. The only reason it happened was that we saw what was happening and got our act together. We were one of the weakest units in the department, and now we're one of the strongest in terms of dealing with the superintendent."
Mr. Strother recommended that desegregation advocates find out who is on their state's block-grants advisory committee and who has final authority over the formula. "If you don't know that information," he said, "you haven't done a very important part of your homework."
But other participants were clearly skeptical about the states' willingness to adjust their block-grant formulas--or to set aside funds from the 20-percent share that can be spent at the states' discretion--for desegregation.
"Many of us are here because the federal government was our ally; the states wouldn't do what they were supposed to do," said a conference participant from Ohio. "You're saying we've got to lobby the folks who were against this whole operation to begin with. I think you all need to understand that we are in one hell of a mess."
"We can't fool ourselves into thinking we're going to get any more money from the states for desegregation," said Elena Vergara, director of the Center for Equity in Education of the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio.
The advocates' strategy would not assist school districts such as Montclair, N.J., however. In that state, the proposed formula for distributing the block-grants funds would give the Montclair school system, an urban/suburban district with 6,000 students, only one-twentieth of its current $1-million esaa grant.
The loss of funds will occur even though the state's formula takes into account children from low socio-economic backgrounds and children who need improvement in basic skills--two types of students who are often present in school districts undergoing desegregation.
Marvin S. Habas, the state's block-grants administrator, said that the problem for Montclair is that the relatively small school system had received such a disproportionately large desegregation grant. The state's formula will not hurt large urban school systems with desegregation programs, such as Newark, which will lose only 2 percent of its esaa grant next year, he said.
Mr. Habas also claimed that state officials were unable to come up with a formula that was more equitable to school districts such as Montclair because the state's share of the funds next year will be 13 percent less than it is receiving under the federal categorical programs this year. (See Education Week, Jan. 19.)
Likewise, the advocates' strategy would not greatly help school systems in New York, which will be experiencing a 35-percent cut from this year's funding level. Under the state's proposed distribution formula, 31 school districts--which operate desegregation programs affecting 942,000 students--will lose esaa funds, in spite of the inclusion of such factors as "high-cost" children in the formula, according to Robert J. Maurer, executive deputy commissioner of education.
"It is a crushing, disproportionate cut. The loss of esaa money cannot be compensated for under the block-grant formula," Mr. Maurer said.
Another participant in the desegregation-committee meeting went so far as to suggest that school districts that are losing their esaa funds midway through what they had been told would be three- to five-year grants should sue the federal government for the remaining funds.
Mark Freeman, a federal-program officer with the school system in Shaker Heights, Ohio, advised officials of such districts to bring legal action. "I think you had a contract with them," said Mr. Freeman. "There's a possibility of winning, and there's a greater possibility of getting some publicity about the issue."
But Larry Bussey, who has held several positions in the U.S. Education Department and is now deputy undersecretary for management, said he doubted that approach would work.
"There's always some 'wiggle room,"' Mr. Bussey said. "The deal is always pending an appropriation by Congress. Since Congress has not appropriated anything ... " he trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished.