A Tumultuous Decade of Desegregation: Boston's Court Case Draws to a Close

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Boston--After 12 years and some 400 court orders, the law suit that plunged this city into a bitter and protracted struggle over school desegregation is finally drawing to a close.

W. Arthur Garrity Jr., the federal judge who has presided over the case's complex legal machinations since 1972 and whose tough decisions have made him both a center of controversy and a target of death threats, says he will withdraw entirely from the case by the beginning of the summer.

And the current lawyers for both sides--among the more than two dozen who have paraded through Judge Garrity's courtroom since 1972--now say they expect the 1985 school year to begin without federal-court involvement.

But more than a decade of divisive--and sometimes violent--confrontation has left the city with sharply differing perspectives on how the case was conducted and what its real outcome has been.

On one point, however, there is almost universal agreement: The case of Tallulah Morgan v. Hennigan (now Morgan v. Nucci) changed the Boston public-school system--and the city--forever.

The Case's Development

The roots of the case go back to 1965, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) first filed suit in federal court on behalf of black parents seeking to desegregate the Boston Public Schools. But passage that year of a "racial imbalance" law, which stated that no city school could be more than 50-percent nonwhite, persuaded the parents to withdraw their suit.

In 1972, however, slow progress in desegregating the schools led 14 of the black parents to refile their desegregation suit in federal district court. That suit was subsequently expanded into a class action against the Boston School Committee charging that black students in the city's public schools were being denied equal educational opportunities.

Phase I

After hearing the case in 1972, Judge Garrity weighed its issues for nearly two years. In 1974, he ordered the state board of education to draw up a massive busing plan--the so-called Phase I plan involving thousands of students but limited to certain geographic areas. Carried out in the 1974-75 school year, it was "the plan that blew up the city," according to John Coakley, senior officer of the school system's department of implementation, which has day-to-day responsibility for desegregation matters.

Mr. Coakley, whose four children attended city schools during the tumultuous decade, now calls the Phase I plan an "utter and total educational and social disaster." Because of its lack of city-wide application and its insensitivity to neighborhood characteristics, the plan "destabilized the city," he says.

"To this day, we really have not recovered from Phase I," says the implementation chief. "That isn't to say that I excuse all the rock-throwing and name-calling and blatant racism that emerged in that first year. What I am saying is that state bureaucrats and the judge share some guilt in allowing that grievously flawed plan to be carried out.''

Robert A. Dentler, an expert adviser to Judge Garrity, disagrees with Mr. Coakley's assessment, arguing in his book, Schools on Trial, that though "the plan's defects and the confusion that stemmed from hasty implementation during July and August [of 1974] may have exacerbated tensions in some neighborhoods, the conflict was deliberately created and nurtured by the leaders of the anti-desegregation movement."

Phase II

Phase I was in effect for only one year. In October 1974, the judge ordered Phase II, which required the school department to create a desegregation plan that, rather than dealing in absolute percentages, would balance every school so that it generally paralleled the racial composition of the city schools overall.

The judge ordered his own experts to create the plan after the school committee failed to reach agreement on a desegregation proposal. The judge's plan, which divides the city into eight geographic districts and one citywide magnet district, is, with some minor modifications, the one in use today.

Under Phase II, the racial balance in the schools of each of the eight districts was to reflect the racial proportions within the district. To achieve those proportions, the court has broken the city up into hundreds of small "geocodes" from which students are assigned to schools within their geographic area and bused to them if necessary. Bilingual and special-education students are exempted from the student-assignment orders.

In 1978, 29,374 students out of the district's total of 70,363 were being bused. As of last month, 31,716 of the district's 56,970 children were being bused. The increase, Mr. Coakley explains, is attributable both to neighborhood school closings and increased clustering of bilingual- and special-education students.

Court Begins Withdrawal

Judge Garrity began to relinquish some of his tight control in the case in 1982, giving over to the Massachusetts Department of Education much of the responsibility for day-to-day monitoring.

The department's fourth and latest monitoring report, issued last month, offers evidence that is being used by the school committee to press its case for full control over its own affairs. States the departmental report: "Boston has demonstrated general compliance with orders regarding assignment of students to community and citywide district schools."

Last year, the judge took a second step back from the case, relinquishing jurisdiction over two of the 12 areas he had monitored since the case was first decided--special education and local business/school partnerships. His pledge this year to withdraw from the case completely by June is seen by many as the official denouement of the federal-court role.

'Foolish Antics'

Completion of the court case, however, does not necessarily mean resolution of the conflicts surrounding it--or attainment of the suit's original goals.

Looking back at the last decade, representatives of both sides agree that court-ordered desegregation was a necessary step. Where they disagree is in assessing blame for the protracted and deeply painful nature of the desegregation process.

"The direction of the case has been determined far more by the actions of the school committee and superintendent than by the judge or plaintiffs," asserts Thomas Atkins, the desegregation lawyer for the naacp and the representative of the black plaintiffs.

Those disenchanted with the role Judge Garrity played in the process, says Mr. Atkins, should realize that "the foolish antics" of the school committee actually created his extraordinary judicial power. "If the school committee had moved with expedition and competence," says the naacp lawyer, "the judge would not have had to take the role he did."

Mr. Atkins also notes that "not one of the appeals of any of the judge's orders has been accepted by a higher court."

Few can argue that the powerful and politically minded Boston School Committee, which had no black members before 1978, helped expedite the original court order. For years, it served as a springboard for local politicians seeking higher office, and committee candidates in the 1960's and 1970's routinely opposed involuntary desegregation and busing.

One of the most vocal and flamboyant of the committee members during the tense desegregation era, Louise Day Hicks, waged two unsuccessful mayoral campaigns based mainly on her opposition to busing.

'An Impediment'

But Robert R. Spillane, the combative superintendent of schools who came to Boston in 1982, argues that the court, not the school committee, worsened the school system's problems.

Mr. Spillane says he inherited a system in "chaos" after seven years of court-ordered desegregation, and that one of his first undertakings was "to expose to the public view the inadequacies and ineptness of the federal-court role in the school system."

Early in his tenure, the superintendent accused Judge Garrity of running the Boston city schools like "his private plantation."

"We have never once said that desegregation in and by itself is not a noble, a just, and righteous issue," he says today. "But we're at the point where the continued involvement of the court is an impediment."

Population Shift

Although, technically, a number of Boston schools are still not in compliance with the court's orders, no school in the city is now completely segregated--unlike the situation 12 years ago. The school system's staff is much more integrated than a decade ago and is now nearing the court-set goal of a 25-percent black teaching force.

Also, the city's three public schools that require entrance examinations are all at least 50-percent minority. Before 1974, they were virtually all white.

But dramatic shifts in the city's school-age population have also taken place during this period, and how closely these correlate with the desegregation process--and whether such correlation is a gauge of the process's success or failure--is a matter of some dispute.

Like that of many big-city systems, Boston's public-school enrollment has dropped significantly over the past 15 years; in 1970, there were 96,696 students enrolled in the system; in 1984, it enrolled 60,189 students.

More important, those dwindling numbers reflect a dramatically changing racial composition, especially in comparison with the city's general population, which has remained fairly stable.

In 1972, when the desegregation case was first filed, 60 percent of the city's students were white and 33 percent were black. At the beginning of this school year, 28 percent were white and 47 percent were black. In that same period, the Hispanic enrollment increased from 5 percent to 16 percent.

White Flight

There is general agreement that a portion of this white exodus from city schools can be attributed to desegregation. Judge Garrity's expert adviser, Mr. Dentler, who is also a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, says studies he has conducted indicate that about 20,000 white students left the public schools between September 1974 and September 1976, and that about 7,500 of those departures can be attributed to desegregation.

Compared with other major cities that have been involved in mandatory desegregation, Boston ranks near the top of the scale in terms of "white flight," according to Garth Taylor, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of a book, to be released next month, on desegregation in Boston.

Mr. Taylor attributes the white flight to the impact of the desegregation plan, which failed to involve suburban areas and paired local districts with little attention to the ethnic make-up of the neighborhoods. But he also says that the resistance of city officials to desegregation efforts played a role.

"Every public official from the mayor on down, and almost every member of the church hierarchy, was saying, 'You don't have to comply with this plan; if you don't like it, you can engage in civil disobedience,"' Mr. Taylor notes. "That kind of a lack of support for a plan while it is being implemented puts individual people in an impossible situation."

Varied Factors

But few argue that desegregation alone was responsible for the loss of white students. From 1967 to 1972, before court-ordered busing, the number of whites in the public schools dropped from 73 percent to 60 percent, while the number of blacks increased from 25 to 33 percent.

And, observers say, it is almost impossible to assess whether a different method of desegregation might have stemmed the exodus of whites from the system. Some degree of white flight, they note, has occurred in every major U.S. city, with or without court-ordered busing.

Mr. Spillane argues that it was not desegregation per se, but the in-stability of the school system under the court orders that led to an exodus of whites and middle-class blacks as well.

"The court had to be involved, because the system was deliberately segregated by the school committee," he says. "But they shouldn't have been involved to the extent they were. I say to the court, 'Set the quota, give the parameters but don't give us the process."'

Wrong Measurement

But some say that white attrition should not be the basis on which the success or failure of desegregation is measured.

"I think the mistake people make is that they evaluate the system on how many whites left--they should judge on whether it is accessible and whether the quality has improved," says John D. O'Bryant, the senior member of the Boston School Committee and one of its four blacks members. "Because a system is largely black, it's considered inferior--well, that's a white point of view."

Opened School System

In fact, there are a number of more positive measures by which all sides agree the city has profited from the desegregation experience. Statistics show, for example, that public-school students' academic performance has improved, with reading and mathematics scores increasing steadily over the past several years.

But an even bigger long-term dividend of the struggle, many say, may be the political and attitudinal changes that have taken place.

"The single greatest effect to come out of this case is a change in the political culture in public education in Boston the city," says Mr. Dentler. "The ending of the politics of segregation opened the system to parental interests and concerns in a way that it hadn't been before. All groups now have some considerable access."

Mr. O'Bryant agrees. "Since the 1930's and 1940's, the schools in Boston have been in a state of serious decline," he says, but local politicians have used education's prob3lems, instead of solving them.

"A lot of people now are trying to blame the court orders for the poor schools," says Mr. O'Bryant. "The court orders did the opposite--they exposed some of the problems in the schools and improved them."

Business, College Partnerships

Another plus to come out of the desegregation process is the increased community involvement in public schools over the past decade. Business and university partnerships, which make available entry-level jobs and college scholarships for graduates of the public schools, is the most visible and successful of the community ventures.

"I give credit to both Garrity and Spillane on that," says the school system's Mr. Coakley. "Garrity set the tone and Spillane came in years later and took advantage of it. The result has been, I think, a more open school system, a school system that the business and university community do not ignore, which historically, many of them did."

'Trouble Letting Go'

But while citizens in all quarters acknowledge the improvement, they remain at odds over what happens next. The plaintiffs in the desegregation case fear that unless the judge leaves numerous standing orders and appoints an overseeing master, the school committee could undo the efforts of the past 12 years. But the committee wants to see the court out, and as soon as possible.

"For years, the school department has had no control over its destiny or the destiny of its children," Mr. Coakley says. "I consider the judge a great American, but he's having trouble letting go in this case."

For 12 years, Judge Garrity has been immersed in the case, subjecting himself to public outrage that at times turned so ugly he required round-the-clock guards because of death threats. The judge and desegregation, for better or worse, have become almost synonymous in the city.

He is described by both sides as a courageous man, a conservative Irish American who felt it was his "duty" to take the case--not necessarily, as one long-time observer notes, because he believes in desegregation but because he believes in the Constitution. And, the observer adds, Judge Garrity and others saw that, time and again, the school committee and city officials were willing to defy the 14th Amendment.

Multiple Refusals

Had the school committee not defied the federal court in 1974 and 1975, Mr. Coakley says, control of the school system would have remained in the people's hands. "The city school system refused to authorize a desegregation plan when the court ordered us to come up with one. So the court went ahead and got its masters and experts, and that kept the microscope on us for years."

"After all," he adds, "if the committee wouldn't authorize a plan, the suspicion had to be that the committee might not allow someone else's plan to be carried out, either."

Positive Survey

Now times are different. There have been new school committees and new superintendents, and some would say there is also a new city. A poll commissioned by the CityWide Educational Coalition, a group of parents and community leaders, shows that a majority of the 544 Boston residents with school-age children surveyed feel that having a3school within walking distance of their homes is not as important as the quality of the school.

The poll, released last month, also shows that, by more than two to one, public-school parents believe the quality of public education in Boston has improved in recent years.

The school department points to the survey as proof that the school system has learned its lesson and no longer needs a judge peering over its shoulder.

But the naacp's Mr. Atkins is not so sure. "The only reason Judge Garrity will not terminate the case is because in all good conscience he cannot put it back in the hands of the school officials," he says.

But there is "a different level of school response" today, he concedes. "I believe the school committee has a greater desire to figure out what should be done and to do it than in the past, but it's still the gang that couldn't shoot straight. In the past, I think it was the gang that didn't want to shoot straight."

Final Proposals

The major issues still before the judge include school closings and a variety of proposals to put the desegregation plan on a more voluntary basis.

On the school-closing issue, Judge Garrity and the school committee are at odds on exactly how many buildings should be closed; the committee has been asked to give the court a "facilities report" within the month.

"There is a tendency in the school system to overbuild," Mr. Atkins comments. "It serves as a means for racial containment." Mr. Coakley counters, however, that the traditional belief that more seats create segregated schools "has never been proven."

Three Major Proposals

In the past month, the court has approved three of the school committee's major proposals to revise the court's current plan. These include a "recruitment incentive plan," which would combine looser mandatory desegregation standards with voluntary recruitment efforts; an "integrated neighborhood enhancement program"; and the merging of two community districts to create "con-trolled" voluntary student assignment for elementary schools.

Under the recruitment incentive plan, which Judge Garrity has partially approved, each principal would be allowed to recruit students from anywhere in the city up to a certain number if those children would enhance the desegregation of the school. Each school would be responsible for making its programs attractive enough to draw students; those schools consistently out of compliance with the racial percentages the court has laid out would eventually be closed down.

The integrated-neighborhood-enhancement program would allow those "comparatively few schools located in areas surrounded by mixed neighborhoods, to take advantage of current neighborhood integration and ignore the geocodes [population zones in the desegregation plan] and assignments of the past 10 years," Mr. Coakley explains. That plan, he says, is designed to respond to the fact that some neighborhoods have changed greatly since the court's original plan, and some children are being bused out of integrated neighborhoods into segregated areas.

The court also approved a plan to set aside two districts and put groups of elementary schools in competition with one another; in those districts, desegregation would be almost completely voluntary.

The experimental plan will test whether competition for students can successfully lead to voluntary desegregation. If it succeeds, Mr. Coakley says, the city might expand it to other districts.

Question of Goals

As the case draws to a close, opinions remain predictably divided over the degree to which Boston's struggle has been worth the toll it took on the community.

"In Boston, where busing was mandatory, the amount of 'interracial exposure' was greater in the first five years of court-ordered busing,'' says Christine Rossell, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University who has studied numerous cities involved in mandatory desegregation. "However, in Milwaukee, where it was voluntary, the amount of interracial exposure began exceeding Boston's level by the fifth year.

"It's a trade-off," Ms. Russell concludes. "Voluntary desegregation might be more long-lasting, but it is also less equitable--it means more school closings and that blacks often have to bear the brunt of busing."

Boston had more extensive white reassignment than any other city in the country, which, Ms. Rossell argues, was the primary cause of white flight. "If Milwaukee or any other city had had the same amount of white reassignment, the same thing would have happened as in Boston," she says.

'Amazingly Vivid Symbol'

For Garth Taylor, of the University of Chicago, "Boston became an amazingly vivid symbol for anti-busing proponents--at the national level and also within other communities."

"People bring Boston up as lurid evidence of the effect of desegregation in a northern city," he says, noting that Boston, as the "the liberal bastion of abolitionism," is a particularly striking example for people who merely wish to show that "the public really doesn't want mandatory desegregation" without looking at what it can accomplish.

Case Without a Plaintiff

Others have argued that desegregation in Boston has become a cause without a constituency, a case without a plaintiff.

Larry Johnson, formerly a lawyer for the black plaintiffs who withdrew from the case late last year, had offered a "Freedom of Choice" plan that would have allowed black parents to send their children to the school of their choice. Under the plan, seats were to be set aside for each racial group in proportion to the racial composition of the school system. Seats that remained unfilled in any school would be given to any student, regardless of race.

A 1982 Boston Globe poll done after the plan was introduced found some 80 percent of black parents said they would prefer to choose the public school their children attend.

But, as Mr. Atkins and others point out, the Globe poll simply noted what has always been true--parents want some control over where their children go to school.

"It doesn't mean they want their children in schools that are inferior," Mr. Atkins says. "Besides, since when are Constitutional issues determined on the basis of a plebescite?"

The "Freedom of Choice" plan put forth by Mr. Johnson represented not so much a repudiation of desegregation as frustration at the case's slow and often painful process, argue those familiar with the plan. But the Court refused to accept the proposal in 1982, and Mr. Johnson has declined to talk with the press since his withdrawal from the case.

Disillusionment, Progress

Those who have lived with the case over the years are philosophical about the upheavals that have followed in its wake. Hope on one side, defiance on the other side, and then disillusionment on both sides, may be the inevitable consequences of a process that drastically disrupts the status quo.

"The real story," adds Mr. Dentler, "is that, if you begin with an extremely resistant city political culture, the change will be painfully slow."

Judge Garrity's plan, "like most things in life, has had mixed results," says Mr. Coakley, among them, some positive results for black children and their families. "Probably more significant," he adds, "it has opened the door for black and other minority professionals to have a significant role in the public schools and to become both role models for minority children and unofficial monitors for the rights of minority children and parents in the system."

Another advantage of the court order, he says, is that it helped shake up the schools. "While that had some initial negative results," says the school system's desegregation chief, "ultimately, most of us are better off when we're shaken up a bit."

Vol. 04, Issue 25

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