Law & Courts

End Near for Chicago Desegregation Decree

By Andrew Trotter — May 16, 2006 3 min read
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A federal judge overseeing a 26-year-old school desegregation case in Chicago has indicated that as long as some details are added, he is inclined to approve a proposed final settlement between the school system and the U.S. Department of Justice that could end court supervision of the district by July of next year.

“The end is clearly in sight,” U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras said during a May 4 hearing on the proposed settlement for concluding the consent decree, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But responding to objections raised by civil rights lawyers, the judge gave the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois until May 25 to propose a list of details that it believes should be addressed in the settlement.

Race in Chicago

The Chicago school system says that racial integration of its schools has remained elusive because some 90 percent of its enrollment is made up of minority-group members. White students make up a smaller proportion of enrollment than they did when the district first entered into a school desegregation consent decree in 1980.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Race in Chicago

Note: The remaining 2.5 percent in 1980 and 3.4 percent today were made up of students of other races.
SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools

Chicago dragged its feet in the 1960s and ’70s on efforts to desegregate its schools. It largely escaped the severe rancor that resulted from court-ordered busing in another Northern city, Boston. In late 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s administration, sensing that civil rights enforcement would be less vigorous under incoming President Ronald Reagan, exacted what commitments it could from the Chicago system, and the two sides entered a consent decree.

Under the 1980 decree, the Chicago district operates a system of magnet schools to provide racially and ethnically diverse educational options by attracting students from neighborhoods across the city.

The decree, which was extensively modified in 2004, also has preschool, after-school, summer school, and reading programs, as well as offerings for English-language learners. Complying with the decree costs the 427,000-student system more than $300 million a year beyond the regular annual budget of $4.2 billion, district officials say.

When the school system entered into the consent decree a quarter-century ago, white students’ share of enrollment had already declined to 17 percent. Today, whites make up only 9 percent of enrollment.

Magnet School Plans

The school district said the magnet schools’ specialized educational programs would continue after court supervision ended.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago school system, said in a press statement that while the proposed settlement would relieve the district of the significant financial burden of producing regular compliance reports, the district remains firmly committed to desegregation.

The agreement “means more money will go toward improving learning in the classroom, rather than to lawyers making reports to the court,” he said on May 2, the day after the proposed settlement was filed in federal court.

But Harvey Grossman, the legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, said the proposed plan has too many loose ends.

“We are concerned about the lack of justification of the changes that the parties have now agreed to and are seeking court approval of,” he said in an interview last week.

The settlement needs to clarify issues such as the school system’s ability to change school attendance boundaries and the future of the magnet program, he said.

School boundaries “have always been recognized as a tool that the board could use to limit or … increase diversity or potentially relieve some of the conditions of racially isolated schools,” Mr. Grossman said.

And he said that while the district affirmed that magnet schools would continue, those schools effectively are the only source of racial diversity in the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods.

Before being released from the decree, the school system should be required to show what its future plans are for the magnet schools, Mr. Grossman said.

Public Hearing Planned

The proposed settlement would also let the district continue using majority-to-minority transfers, which allow students to move from schools in which they are in the racial or ethnic majority to ones in which they would be in the minority when space and transportation are available, and “open-enrollment schools,” which are nonmagnet schools that accept transfers from other attendance zones.

Mr. Grossman said that “while it’s difficult to make a broad generalization, generally the schools in white neighborhoods are better equipped” and receive more money from private sources such as PTAs than schools in mostly minority neighborhoods do.

At the May 4 hearing, Judge Kocoras canceled a two-week series of public hearings that had been scheduled to begin May 15. The proposed settlement will be aired later at a public hearing. If Judge Kocoras approves the settlement, the mayorally appointed Chicago board of education will also have to do so.

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