Del. Desegregation Case Pivots on Student Statistics

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Few metropolitan areas have so evenly distributed their black and white students as Wilmington, Del., and its suburbs.

Behind the enrollment figures, however, lie other statistics that show black students continue to lag in achievement and remain disproportionately represented in lower-level classes, in special education, and among the suspended and expelled.

A federal judge is being asked to decide which of these sets of numbers best represents the efforts by the Wilmington-area districts to end racial segregation in their schools.

Weeks of testimony in the case ended last month. Lawyers for both sides submitted post-trial briefs last week to Judge Sue L. Robinson. It was unclear when the judge might issue a ruling.

The pivotal question is whether the academic shortcomings of black students are legacies of their districts' past discrimination or symptoms of societal problems beyond the control of schools.

The state and the area's four school districts maintain that the racially balanced enrollment figures show they have fully complied with the desegregation orders imposed by the federal courts.

They rejected a settlement and forced a trial in the case in U.S. District Court last December in an attempt to shed the federal supervision of the districts that began in 1978.

Civil-rights advocates and the plaintiffs in the Wilmington case, an organization of parents and activists called the Coalition to Save Our Children, disagree. Citing racial disparities in various measurements of student success, they contend that the state and districts have not fully remedied past discrimination and should not be freed from federal oversight.

Defining Integration

Other courts around the nation are struggling with the same knotty question. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering, in the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation case, how much weight lower courts should give student test scores in deciding whether a district has fulfilled its obligations. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1995.)

Thomas J. Henderson, a deputy director of the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, argued in an interview last week that Supreme Court precedent dictates that integration of schools must extend beyond enrollment.

"You not only desegregate the buildings, but truly desegregate the educational programs, and afford students the same education and the same opportunity to excel and grow," said Mr. Henderson, one of the lawyers for the Wilmington-area plaintiffs. "That hasn't happened here."

Paul R. Fine, the president of the Delaware state board of education, disagreed. "It is unfair to put all of these problems and challenges at the doorstep of the school system," he said in an interview.

Gains and Losses

Delaware was one of four states whose laws requiring racially segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the historic 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

More than two decades later, a federal district court found that barriers remained between Wilmington and its predominantly white suburbs that maintained racial segregation in their schools.

In a 1978 order that remains in effect, the court established what is known as the "9-3" plan, under which children are bused from the city to suburban schools for nine of their 12 years of schooling, and from the suburbs to city schools for three years.

The districts involved in the current case were created to carry out that plan. Each was drawn to include a share of Wilmington along with surrounding communities.

By including the suburbs, the desegregation plan discouraged much of the "white flight" that has plagued other cities.

Today, the four districts have a combined enrollment of nearly 50,000 students. About 31 percent of the total student population is black, with similar proportions in each of the four districts.

Hispanics account for 4 percent of the total and between 2 percent and 9 percent of the populations of the individual districts.

For the most part, enrollment in the districts quickly reached racial balance and remains so today.

Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, recently described the desegregation effort in the Wilmington area as one of the nation's most far-reaching and effective in terms of racial balance.

But Thomas Barr, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, said in the trial's opening arguments that black students have lost ground. He accused the defendants of assuming that "there is no way to teach black children better."

Court Role Debated

In briefs filed last week, the state and the districts argued that they have fulfilled their constitutional obligations. They have ended discriminatory policies and practices and have brought racial balance to the schools, the briefs say.

Mr. Fine acknowledged that the state and the four districts, all in New Castle County, have not closed the achievement gaps between white and minority students. But such gaps, he said, "do not necessarily equal a segregated school system."

Mr. Fine blamed poverty and family difficulties for the academic problems of many black students. "Too many of our children bring societal problems to the schools," he said.

He said the state's ongoing school-reform program seeks to help minority children meet high standards by insuring they have access to equal educational opportunity. That reform effort will continue regardless of whether the state is under a court order, he said.

Charles J. Cooper, a lawyer representing Delaware's House desegregation committee in the case, said an end of federal-court supervision would give the four districts--Christina, Colonial, Brandywine, and Red Clay Consolidated--freedom to find new ways to address their students' needs.

"The people of New Castle County elect local representatives to their school boards to make educational decisions," Mr. Cooper said. "That is their job, and that is how it should be in our democracy."

The lawyers for the plaintiffs predicted last week, however, that ending court oversight would doom busing and quickly bring a return to schools segregated by race and economic status.

Moreover, they said, the districts have not remedied past discrimination and retain several discriminatory educational practices that keep black children at a disadvantage.

"It is clear they have reassigned some students between buildings, but it is equally clear that they have continued to operate a segregated educational program," Mr. Henderson said in an interview.

Dueling Experts

Both sides have long lists of experts to buttress their claims.

A state witness, Jeffrey A. Raffel, testified that African-American students in the districts are far more likely than whites to come from home environments that hinder their chances of academic success.

The black children are far more likely to suffer low birth weight, to be born into poor families, and to have parents who are single or who lack high school diplomas, said Mr. Raffel, a professor of public management at the University of Delaware.

Charles M. Achilles, a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University, said disparities in the suspension rates of black and white children appear linked to the fact that black students are disproportionately represented among the low-income and low-achieving populations. Those populations, he said, tend to have more behavioral problems.

And Herbert J. Walberg, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, said he found no evidence of racial bias in the amount or quality of instruction in the districts.

Black children actually had more school resources directed toward them, he said, and were more likely than their white peers to believe their teachers cared about them.

Discrimination Claims

The plaintiffs called William L. Gordon, a professor of educational leadership at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

He said that the districts administered discipline in an overly subjective manner. Punishment for minority students, he said, was "excessive and disproportionate."

He faulted the districts for failing to train teachers to work with poor and minority students.

Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, testified that even high-scoring black students tend to be shunted into lower-level classes.

And David J. Rostetter, a consultant based in Reston, Va., told the court that the districts place and keep disproportionate numbers of black children in special education.

Experts for the state and districts said class differences, not race, fuel disparities in special-education placement, discipline, and other areas. Nationwide, they said, significantly larger percentages of black children are placed in such classes.

Vol. 14, Issue 23

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