A federal judge has ordered strict new racial guidelines for the Rockford, Ill., schools in an unusually ambitious desegregation order that will reach into virtually every classroom in the 27,000-student district.
U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Michael Mahoney directed the district to close the achievement gap between white and minority students by half and meet strict racial quotas in courses across the curriculum.
The decision represents the last leg of a multipart remedial order in a 7-year-old desegregation lawsuit against Illinois’ third-largest district. In 1993, the judge found the district guilty of systematic discrimination against African-American and Hispanic students. (See Education Week, Nov. 10, 1993.)
Besides the more traditional issues of racial balance among schools, the case has focused intensely on disparities in student achievement and participation in honors classes, gifted and talented programs, and even cheerleading squads.
Proponents of school integration hailed the ruling as a new chapter in the wake of a well-publicized setback last year in the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation case.
In the latest part of the remedial order, handed down this month, the judge said the district is to blame for at least 50 percent of the disparity in standardized-test scores between white students and minority students, who are defined as African-Americans and Hispanics. White children in Rockford typically score about 35 percentage points above blacks and Hispanics on such tests.
The judge ordered the district to reduce that gap by at least half by 2000-01. He also left the district an alternative method for satisfying his directive: bringing 90 percent of minority students to within one year of grade level in reading and math.
Desegregation experts said last week that they could recall no other case in which a court had established a district’s degree of culpability for test-score disparities and then ordered the gaps closed by a proportional amount.
“It’s a real interesting development in a real interesting case,” said Patricia Brannan, a school-desegregation lawyer with the firm of Hogan & Hartson in Washington.
Christine Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University who testified for the district in the case, was less charitable.
“It’s extremely naive,” she said. “It’s a misunderstanding of the research.”
5 Percent Rule
The decision is also unusual because of the racial quotas it imposes in an effort to eliminate what the judge termed “within-school segregation.”
Under the ruling, school officials will have to ensure in most cases that the number of minority students in a particular class falls within 5 percent of their representation in the school as a whole at that grade level. The ruling applies to most regular, honors, and gifted and talented classes but not to certain narrowly defined electives.
“It’s a mandate that not only the schools be desegregated, but the classes be desegregated,” said Eugene E. Eubanks, a professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Mr. Eubanks has been the court’s appointed “master” in the Rockford schools since 1991 and has broad powers over the district’s desegregation efforts.
Judge Mahoney also imposed guidelines for racial balance on extracurricular activities, although less stringent ones. The cheerleading program will be subject to stricter quotas, however, on the grounds that the district has shown a flagrant pattern of bias in that area.
The Rockford student body is 66.2 percent white, 25.9 percent African-American, 8 percent Hispanic, 2.7 percent Asian-American or Pacific Islander, and 0.2 percent American Indian.
William Quinlan, a lawyer for the district, said the school board would appeal the achievement mandates and might challenge the racial-balance standards as well.
“It may be impossible to implement,” Mr. Quinlan said. “There’s a whole host of issues.”
Besides the achievement gains and racial quotas, the judge’s latest order required changes in discipline policies to eliminate alleged discrimination against minorities; strengthened Mr. Eubanks’ powers; and set a cap on how much the district can spend to implement his rulings.
In earlier parts of his order, Judge Mahoney directed the district to abolish academic tracking, implement a controlled-choice system of assigning students, and change policies on placement of minority teachers.
In his student-achievement finding, the magistrate took pains to address objections the U.S. Supreme Court has raised to using disparities in test scores to justify extensive desegregation remedies.
A year ago, in its ruling in the Missouri v. Jenkins case out of Kansas City, Mo., the high court cautioned federal judges against requiring programs designed to improve subpar test performance without identifying precisely how much a district was to blame for the lower scores. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)
In the Rockford case, the judge said he thought such factors as “poverty, social class, societal prejudice, and racial stereotyping” all affect student performance, and he rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the district was 100 percent to blame for test-score disparities.
Still, he said the district’s practices concerning student assignment, facilities allocation, and academic tracking had undermined achievement by blacks and Hispanics. Therefore, he wrote in his June 7 finding, “the court will not allow the district to walk away from the harm it inflicted and escape from the responsibility of fixing a problem that it played a substantial role in creating.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1996 edition of Education Week as Racial Quotas Are Ordered For Rockford