Far-reaching legacy of Boston school case

When Laval S. Wilson, the first black superintendent of Boston's school system, reported to his office this week, he opened a new chapter for the city school system. At the same time, another chapter was just closing. US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, ending a 13-year-old desegregation case, Tuesday relinquished his authority over the city's schools. In so doing, Dr. Wilson and city officials regained control of a school system that, 11 years ago, opened with violent protests over busing.

Opinion is divided over whether the Boston case will set a precedent for desegregation cases elsewhere in the country. Some people, including Prof. Charles V. Willie of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, think it already has.

Many desegregation plans elsewhere in the US had been ``fashioned to be least offensive to whites.'' But Judge Garrity held that Boston must redress grievances of blacks, even if whites disagreed, says Professor Willie.

The legacy of desegregation has been far-reaching, he adds. In Boston, as in other cities across the nation, political systems have changed to a more representative form of government in the wake of desegregation suits. Minorities now have better opportunities to be elected to school boards and city councils, he says.

In addition, ``Garrity was one of the first judges in the country to insist that enhanced educational opportunity ought to flow from desegregation,'' says Willie, who has served as an expert witness during desegregation cases in a half-dozen cities. ``Garrity focused on the quality of education, not just desegregation, early on, before other judges.''

But some Boston officials question whether the quality of education really has improved.

``The best and brightest are gone,'' says city councilor James Kelly of South Boston. Mr. Kelly is not optimistic that public schools will ever again become a ``symbol of excellence.''

``It's difficult to gauge what desegregation has done,'' says Ellen Guiney, director of the City Wide Educational Coalition, a volunteer watchdog agency that studies and publishes statistics about Boston's schools. ``Before desegregation, the [school] department gave tests, but never compiled results nor compared them from year to year.''

According to a coalition report last month, Boston students scored at or above 50 percent for the nation in grades one through eight, but below the 50 percentile in grades 9 through 11. With one exception, all grade levels improved between 1983 and 1985, the report says.

``But you can't accept the overall stats at face value,'' Ms. Guiney says. ``There's a wide disparity among the races. The problem for the new superintendent and school board will be to see that blacks and Hispanics benefit from desegregation. Their scores are rising slowly, but they still have a way to go.''

Schools have improved in a number of areas, says Ian Foreman, school department spokesman. He cites improvement in scores for college-entrance exams, fewer criminal incidents in schools, and better attendance.

The school department's security force has increased from 38 officers four years ago to more than 100 today, he says. Black administrators are 23 percent of the total, and black teachers are 20.5 percent.

Students who attend urban schools today are not the ones -- economically or racially -- that attended schools 11 years ago when Judge Garrity ordered desegregation.

Racially Boston schools have changed from 57 percent white in 1973-74 to only 27 percent white in 1984-85. Under desegregation, total enrollment has dropped from 90,000 students in 1973 to 56,000 in 1984-85.

``Those who could afford to leave the system did,'' Mr. Foreman says.

``Our job is not only to encourage white students to return to the system,'' says John Nucci, chairman of the Boston School Committee. ``We also have to check out black flight. Our middle-class blacks are leaving the system, too.''

But Willie and other experts say the city should not try to woo white students back, but should focus on providing the best possible education to students who remain in the system.

More than 70 percent of the nation's minority children are enrolled in urban schools, says Samuel Husk of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington. City desegregation plans that extend into the suburbs now are in force in several southern cities -- Charlotte-Mecklenberg County, N.C.; Miami-Dade County, Fla., Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn., Memphis-Shelby County, Tenn., and others. Outside the South, Buffalo, N.Y., St. Louis, and Kansas City, Mo., have city-suburban desegregation programs.

``Many cities are following the Boston program,'' Mr. Husk says. The pattern is to create ``magnet'' schools of high caliber to attract students, especially in science and math. ``They stress magnets rather than busing to mix schools racially. Pairing black and white schools as Boston did in 1974 is deemphasized.''

Two key actions leading to Judge Garrity's withdrawal were Boston's appointment of a black superintendent and the revision of the way school board members are elected. Today, four minority members serve on the 13-member board.

In his final orders, Judge Garrity gave the school committee final authority to make changes in his decree, after consulting with the state Board of Education and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The board, however, cannot change the order requiring desegregation of all schools.

He also ordered the city to complete a long-range plan for the use of school facilities, while making sure it complies with desegregation requirements. Faculty and staff must remain desegregated to include 25 percent black and 10 percent other minorities, he ruled.

1855. Massachusetts outlaws the use of distinctions based on color or religion when admitting students to public schools. 1963. Blacks carry 15 complaints to the Boston School Committee; superintendent Fred Gillis insists Boston schools are not segregated. 1965. Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Law enacted. It prohibits schools with more than 50 percent black enrollment. 1966. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) receives state and federal funding for one-way voluntary busing program.

It takes black students from inner-city to suburbs. 1972. Black plaintiffs file class action suit, charging Boston School Committee and Massachusetts Board of Education with denying black children equal education opportunity. 1973. State Supreme Court upholds lower court order calling for a racial balance plan for Boston schools.

Antibusing forces march outside the state house. 1974. US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. orders the schools to comply with a state desegregation plan drawn up under his supervision. Schools open amid boycotts and protests. Judge Garrity orders hiring of one black teacher for every white teacher until faculty is at least 20 percent black. 1975. Court extends mandatory busing to entire city except East Boston. 1978. Robert C. Wood becomes superintendent.

Garrity rejects Wood's attempts to modify desegregation plan and Wood is fired by the School Committee in 1980. 1981. Robert R. Spillane becomes superintendent of Boston schools; instigates system-wide management and curriculum reforms. 1982. Garrity turns over daily monitoring of the school system's compliance with his order to the state Board of Education. 1985. Laval S. Wilson is selected by the school committee to be Boston's first black superintendent of schools. Judge Garrity returns control of Boston schools to the School Committee. --

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