Court's challenge to Boston: to prove it can run its public schools

ONE of the least glorious eras in Massachusetts history is finally nearing an end, and perhaps none too soon. After almost a decade and a half with federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. virtually in charge of Boston's school system, an appeals court has in effect said enough is enough.

Although the tribunal, in its Sept. 28 ruling, set no deadline for Judge Garrity's withdrawal, it made it clear that the time has come for Boston school officials to resume control.

While some may argue that not enough has been done to achieve racial balance in Boston classrooms, the appeals court concluded that the schools have been made ``as desegregated as possible, given the realities of modern urban life.''

The decision is an important vote of confidence in Boston's 13-member school committee and its ``commitment to eliminating discrimination.''

Now it's now up to that panel to prove that it can produce a workable pupil-assignment blueprint that provides quality education for all.

What can be expected is a major modification of the current court-imposed specifications involving widespread busing of children outside their neighborhoods to other sections of the city.

Greater parental say in where children attend classes seems likely. Many will choose magnet schools with their special curriculum enrichments, even though that choice will involve busing. Others will prefer having their children, especially those in the lower grades, attend neighborhood schools.

The challenge for the school committee is to make sure that any refinement it makes in the Garrity-approved assignment plan does not violate the spirit of the various court orders aimed at achieving and maintaining desegregation.

Clearly, as well intentioned as the judge was, and is, he just might have kept his gavel on the Boston school system too long. It is questionable whether another judge would have persisted for 13 years in trying to ensure racial balance of a school system - a system long hobbled by political considerations that tended to deprive minorities a quality education.

There was no way that some parents, particularly those from all-white neighborhoods, would accept busing, no matter who ordered it.

There has been progress toward racial harmony in Boston and the federal court's ongoing presence in overseeing the school system has contributed to this. But the price, including the costs of busing, has been enormous. Hundreds of parents, determined that their children would not be forced to attend schools outside their neighborhood, have moved out of Boston.

For some families it meant selling the house, frequently at a loss.

This exodus of mostly middle-class white families helped bring about major changes in the city's population mix, especially within the school system. White flight would probably have taken place regardless of whether or not Judge Garrity had moved to end school desegregation in Boston. But the pace surely would have been slower.

The statistics speak for themselves. In the early 1970s, just before Garrity began his involvement in the school system, including the drawing of district boundaries to end racial imbalance, there were 92,000 pupils in Boston public schools. Today there are little more than half that many.

Meanwhile, the proportion of white pupils has dropped from more than 75 percent to about 30 percent.

Blacks and other minorities that 15 years ago amounted to just under 25 percent, now stand at close to 48 percent blacks, and 22 percent mostly Hispanic and Asian.

Of those families remaining in Boston, many are older white couples without school-age children, low-income whites who have had little choice but to remain, and minorities.

It should have been apparent close to a decade ago that Garrity's efforts to achieve racial balance in the city's schools weren't working, and that there probably was no way to make it work.

That busing was not the success it might have been must be a major disappointment to Garrity, who devoted so many years to trying to make Boston's schools better for all, including blacks who for too long had been provided a less-than-quality education.

While the goal of ensuring that every Boston public school pupil receives the best instruction possible may not have been reached, things are surely better than they were.

Certainly some of the credit belongs to Garrity. Much of the improvement, however, can be attributed to a rise in the social conscience of many Bostonians who have helped bring about a generally higher caliber school committee.

With Judge Garrity out of the picture, it now becomes the responsibility of the school committee, school superintendent Laval Wilson, and the people of Boston - those of all races - to see that improvements continue and the school system never again has to be taken over by the courts.

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