WASHINGTON — ANOTHER chapter opens today before the US Supreme Court in the long-running story of efforts to end school desegregation across the United States. It is the first major school desegregation case to come before the nation's highest court in a decade. The case is technically narrow in scope. The court is hearing lawyers for both sides argue whether the board of education of Oklahoma City public schools has done enough to end school segregation and therefore no longer needs to be supervised by the courts. The school board says it has; its critics say it has not.
The ramifications of this case stretch from one end of America to the other. Thirty-six years after the Supreme Court decision that required public schools to desegregate, about 500 US school systems still are operating under the supervision of the courts.
Many cities, like Oklahoma City, find it literally impossible to maintain integrated neighborhood schools because of housing segregation.
What the school systems want to know is what actions will satisfy the courts that they have done their best to do what courts have ordered: namely, desegregate schools given racially segregated patterns of housing.
Legal experts wonder whether the Supreme Court's ruling on this case will establish clear standards that a school board must meet to get out from under court supervision.
Oklahoma City's school board integrated its schools by busing in response to a 1972 court order. Five years later a federal court ended its supervision of the city's schools after the board made the case that it had ended school segregation stemming from government action.
Then four years ago Oklahoma City reduced busing and restored neighborhood schools; as a result 11 schools are now more than 90 percent black. The school board says this result is ``not intentionally discriminatory,'' does not violate the Constitution, and therefore does not require court supervision.
Critics disagree. The courts should require school boards to do more than Oklahoma City has done, say the American Civil Liberties Union and others. The ACLU says Oklahoma City's or any other school board should be required to show that the ``vestiges of a dual system have been eliminated.''
It should also have to show that the ``school system has done something to produce long-term stability of an integrated school system,'' says John Powell, the national legal director of the ACLU. ``Oklahoma City ... hasn't done it.''
US Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, in a friend of the court brief, says a key question is whether the schools were actually desegregated when the board reduced busing and resumed a neighborhood school policy. If they were, he holds, court supervision should end.
``The interesting question,'' says Prof. Michael McConnell of the University of Chicago Law School, is whether the court will address ``the real question - the [disparate] allocation of resources'' that often exists between wealthy white schools and poor black ones.
In the background of these questions looms once again the controversial issue of busing - which many whites and blacks criticize, though sometimes for different reasons. ``Busing is a failed policy,'' says Professor McConnell: ``It didn't work.''