Panel in Philadelphia Proposes Mandatory Busing of Students

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Provoking strong opposition from the Philadelphia school board and catching community groups off-guard, a court-appointed team of school-desegregation experts has recommended that the Philadelphia school district institute a mandatory-busing plan for city schools.

The panel's report in the long-dormant desegregation case also proposes that nearby suburban districts be ordered to participate in voluntary-integration efforts.

Judge Doris A. Smith of the state's Commonwealth Court, who has taken the plan under advisement, has declined to say what her next move in the nearly 25-year-old case will be. She has also sealed all records in the case, including the report, and ordered parties involved in the proceedings not to speak to the press.

William H. Brown 3rd, the lawyer for the school district, said at an open hearing last month, however, that the district remained "unalterably opposed to any proposal which entails mandatory busing.''

Michael Hardiman--a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the plaintiff in the case--told Judge Smith at the hearing that the district's opposition to the plan left the court and parties involved "back at square one.''

At the judge's request, officials of the district and the human-relations commission refused last week to comment on the case.

Education advocates and administrators in outlying suburban districts, meanwhile, said they were trying to learn more about the panel's plan.

Christine Davis, the executive director of the Parents Union for Public Schools, said the re-emergence of the busing issue last month caught community groups, including hers, by surprise.

"Organizations really haven't had the opportunity to respond,'' she said.

Filed in 1968

The case, Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission v. School District of Philadelphia, was initiated with a complaint filed by parents in 1968 and taken up by the human-relations commission in 1970.

Over the next decade, a series of superintendents, all white, resisted the commission's call for mandatory-desegregation measures. In 1971, Richardson Dilworth, then the president of the school board, suggested that a metropolitan district be established in an effort to integrate city schools, but the Commonwealth Court rejected the proposed solution five years later.

Constance E. Clayton, who became the system's first black superintendent in 1982, also argued against mandatory-busing measures. Instead, she proposed a desegregation plan that relied on the improvement of schools to attract students from all backgrounds.

The commission objected to her plan as insufficient, but acceded to its implementation in a 1983 "memorandum of understanding.''

Five years later, the commission asserted that the district had still not accomplished the maximum feasible amount of desegregation. In an effort to keep the case from going to trial, the parties agreed to turn the matter over to a panel of desegregation experts.

Records Sealed

The panel--consisting of two members appointed by the district, two by the human-relations commission, and one by the court--was named in 1990.

It submitted its proposed plan to the court on Nov. 16, but the first press account on the report did not appear until The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story on the plan's recommendations on Dec. 21.

According to the press account and assertions made by Mr. Hardiman of the human-relations commission at last month's hearing, officials of both the district and the commission had agreed that mandatory busing was needed to bring the district's schools into racial balance.

Two days after The Inquirer's story, however, Mr. Brown, the district's lawyer, denied at the hearing that the school board had agreed to support a mandatory-busing proposal.

Backing for such a proposal had apparently been conveyed by district staff members without board approval, he said.

In fact, Mr. Brown said, the board had not reviewed the panel's plan until Dec. 22, the day after The Inquirer story.

Judge Smith issued her order to seal all records in the case on Dec. 9.

A Change in Position?

Mr. Brown said at the Dec. 23 hearing that district staff members had informally submitted a mandatory-busing proposal in response to one of several queries from the court-appointed panel.

In this particular case, he said, staff members had been given 50 or 60 potential pairings of schools designed to achieve racial balance and asked to describe which ones could best accomplish the objective.

Local experts on school law who have followed the Philadelphia case said an agreement to institute mandatory busing would have marked a dramatic departure from the position the district has historically held.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hardiman of the human-relations commission maintained at last month's hearing that the school district had concurred with the panel's findings and recommendations as contained in a draft of its report.

And he expressed shock at the district's rejection of the panel's call for mandatory busing.

"Until this morning,'' he said at the hearing, "it was my understanding that the school district of Philadelphia had committed itself to change with respect to its historical opposition to attempting other measures in order to desegregate its schools.''

10 Pairs of Schools

Specifically, the panel's report called for the pairing of 10 predominantly white schools with 10 predominantly black schools and for students to be bused between them. Nearly 18,000 of the district's approximately 200,000 students would be affected.

The panel rejected a proposal by district officials to create a metropolitan district encompassing Philadelphia and several of its suburbs, sources said last week.

Instead, however, the panel recommended that city and nearby suburban districts implement a voluntary program that would send 350 city students into the suburbs and 350 suburban students into the city.

The panel also suggested that the court consider ordering the state to help pay for the desegregation plan, with a financial consultant being appointed to help determine the state's share.

As described by Mr. Brown during the hearing, the panel's report also recommended that the court consider making several suburban districts formal parties to the case.

Mr. Brown said the districts that immediately came to mind were in Delaware, Montgomery, and Chester counties and, perhaps, Bucks County.

Judge Smith stopped him, however, before he could recall the specific districts the panel had mentioned in an attachment to its report as candidates for formal inclusion in the case.

Mr. Brown said at the hearing that the district agreed with the panel's recommendation to involve suburban districts in city desegregation efforts.

In addition, he said, the district would support the panel's call for more magnet programs in the city as long as they received adequate state funding.

A Disparate Impact?

Mr. Brown said the district would not agree to any mandatory busing within its borders, however, because it had achieved the maximum amount of desegregation possible within its schools.

Moreover, he said, the court lacks the authority to order such measures.

Although the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits de facto school segregation, Mr. Brown noted, it permits mandatory remedies only if they do not have "a disparate impact on either of the races that are involved.''

Any desegregation program that transfers students would likely have a disparate impact on the relatively small population of white students left in the city's schools, he said.

Partly as a result of the desegregation case, Mr. Brown maintained, the percentage of white students in the district has dropped from 33 percent in 1973 to 22 percent last year.

"There are only so many white students who can be spread around,'' he said.

Mr. Brown asked the court to issue an order ending the litigation, which he blamed for a "continual waste'' of district resources at a time when the district is facing severe budget shortfalls.

Mr. Brown also asked the court to find that the district has taken all feasible steps to desegregate and to mandate that the state provide the district with adequate funding for its existing magnet-schools program, which cost $27 million last year.

Community Groups Surprised

Mr. Brown accused the human-relations commission of having "almost a vendetta'' against the district, but the two sides did find some room for agreement.

Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Hardiman agreed that the court should order the state and suburban districts to cooperate with Philadelphia in implementing and funding voluntary-desegregation efforts.

Several suburban superintendents interviewed this month said they had not yet seen the panel's report or followed recent developments in the case closely enough to comment.

"I don't think there were people out here in the county who even realized this was still going on,'' said James F. Shields, the executive director of the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, a regional agency serving the county's school districts.

Ms. Davis of the Parents Union for Public Schools said her organization's board planned to meet late last week to decide its stand on the mandatory-busing proposal.

Veronica Joyner, the president of Parents United for Better Schools, another community group, said last week that she would rather see the additional funds needed for new desegregation initiatives spent on improving the schools themselves.

"Desegregation has done more to make the schools in urban areas worse,'' Ms. Joyner said. "It has not helped the schools.''

Vol. 12, Issue 17

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