Norfolk suit could mark turning point for school desegregation

Black elementary school students in Norfolk, Va., will again be going to all-black schools if the United States Supreme Court upholds a federal appeals court ruling. Last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond upheld a Norfolk school board plan to end cross-town busing at the elementary level.

As a result, 10 of Norfolk's 35 elementary schools will be essentially all black. The decision has raised a howl of protest from civil rights groups.

In 1971, a federal judge ordered Norfolk to desegregate its schools; he accepted a cross-town busing plan to do the job. Four years later, a federal judge ruled that the Norfolk school system was free of racial segregation and dismissed its case.

Norfolk kept its busing plan, but civic leaders became increasingly alarmed by the flight of white middle-class families out of Norfolk and by the lack of support the elementary schools could muster from parents. The school system went from 60 percent white in 1971 to 59 percent black in 1983, and civic leaders complained that the city was losing its middle class.

By restoring neighborhood schools, the school board argued, middle-class whites could be lured back to Norfolk and parents could again be enticed to participate in school activities. The board accepted the plan by a 5-to-2 vote with 2 out of 3 of the board's black members voting against it.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued to stop the plan. But the court in Richmond agreed with the Norfolk school board that white flight from the school system was leading to resegregation anyway and that parents of both races had lost interest in their children's schools because the schools were so far away from their homes.

William Bradford Reynolds, the Justice Department's chief civil rights enforcer, argued on the school board's behalf. He says the Norfolk decision is the intended outcome of court-ordered desegregation.

Some groups worry about the Norfolk decision's potential effect. ``Our major concern is that this decision would authorize school districts to go back to systems they know will be segregated,'' says Bill Taylor, director of Catholic University's Center for National Policy Review, which monitors school desegregation cases.

Civil rights groups also argue that neighborhood schools invariably lead to educational segregation. ``They [the Norfolk school board] say they are going to neighborhood schools,'' said Norman Chachkin of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. ``But they are schools that were built in those neighborhoods because they [the neighborhoods] were segregated. The decision makes it appear as though all of Norfolk's history has disappeared.''

The National Education Association (NEA) is concerned that Norfolk will change the nature of its elementary school system without the federal oversight that accompanied the desegregation move in 1981.

``The whole notion of education excellence is out the window,'' says Boyd Bosna, the NEA's civil rights specialist. ``It's going to be a much bigger job to tear up the system they have than it was to create it in the first place. When they created the desegregation plan they had help and guidelines from the federal government. Now they will get no help, and no one is looking over their shoulders to make sure the kids get an even break.''

Mr. Reynolds discounts these objections. Norfolk has three black school board members, a black school superintendent, two black assistant superintendents, and an integrated faculty, he says, all of whom will be looking after the welfare of black students.

He adds that he is not concerned that the Norfolk decision will make all-black elementary schools.

``Nobody has ever suggested that the objective is to mix students,'' he says. ``If a school system separates students because of race, that is wrong. But if you have schools that are all one race, but not because of anything a school system has done, that's all right.''

Reynolds says other school systems are awaiting the outcome of the Norfolk case before they launch changes of their own. He declines to say which ones, but he adds that of the 570 school systems that have had court-ordered desegregation plans in which the Justice Department participated, 117 have been declared desegregated and 47 have been dismissed from court orders.

``Once you have dismissal, the school system doesn't have to go to a court for approval for every change,'' Reynolds says. ``It gives jurisdiction back to the schools, where it should be.''

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