BOSTON — Twenty-two years ago, scenes of whites hurling rocks at buses shuttling black children to court-assigned schools flashed across America's TV screens, portraying Boston as the Selma of the North.
Tomorrow, the desegregation plan that sparked those infamous clashes is scheduled to go on trial in a case that has already rattled officials here and could set a precedent for rolling back measures intended to racially balance schools across the nation.
The case involves a white eighth-grader who is suing for reverse discrimination after not being accepted at Boston Latin, one of three prestigious public exam schools in the city. Though a settlement is still possible, the dispute, if it goes to trial, would provide the first test of racial quotas at a secondary school nationwide.
The dispute comes at a time when school systems from San Francisco to Hartford, Conn., are revisiting the issue of race in the classroom. A handful of far-reaching Supreme Court decisions has ushered in the dismantling of desegregation plans in cities such as Denver, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. Other school districts, including Englewood, N.J., and Hartford, are in still in court fighting race and resource battles.
A win for Julia McLaughlin in the dispute involving Boston Latin would strengthen any reverse-discrimination case a student might bring in the wake of the recent court trend. "The impact of the case is potentially enormous, because it would repeat what the Supreme Court has said," says David Armor, a sociologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "The Supreme Court has said you can use race as a goal, you just can't have a quota. Boston Latin had a quota, not just a goal."
The Supreme Court, in a series of decisions in 1995, established a new, stricter standard for when affirmative action is lawful. Racial preferences are only constitutional when remedying past discrimination, the court said. Miss McLaughlin is expected to win her case because more than 12 years have passed since Boston's desegregation plan was put into place. Since every student in the school system today has had an education under the new system, it would be difficult for the district to defend the racial quotas in place as a remedy for past discrimination.
But critics of the high court's recent rulings argue that past discrimination still does come into play - in the quality of education minority students get. How else, they ask, can you explain why minority students typically score lower on standardized tests? Is it because of inherent bias in written exams? Is it a result of minority kids being taught to perform at a lower level?
"Nobody has the answer to why upper-middle-class black kids test worse than working class white kids," says Charles Glenn, an education professor at Boston University and former state official who worked on the issue of race in education.
At the heart of the Boston Latin case is an admissions policy that requires applicants to take a written test, but then also imposes a quota system under which 35 percent of the students must be black or Hispanic. McLaughlin scored better than 103 black and Hispanic students who were admitted instead of her; 149 children were accepted in the eighth-grade class.
"It's always been a confused and unstable admissions policy," says Professor Glenn. "But the real issue is should we be operating three selective schools and then a whole bunch of schools that, by anyone's standards, are totally inadequate?"
Education experts say that today's desegregation confrontations turn on two major concerns: the quality of education that students throughout the district are receiving and the inherent value in having a diverse classroom. "Test scores are not the only thing school is about," says Chris Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Diversity has benefits for everybody involved."
In the case here, Miss McLaughlin, being represented by her lawyer-father, Michael McLaughlin, is suing the Boston School Committee, the body that has been overseeing - often dividedly - the court-ordered plan to desegregate area schools.
Ironically, the judge in the case, US District Judge Arthur Garrity, is the one who drafted the 1974 desegregation plan. His decision to allow Julia to attend Boston Latin, announced last April, sent a strong signal that the mood of the courts has changed.
At the time, he challenged the school committee to prove that its quotas addressed past discrimination. Instead, it is now trying to do away with the 20-year-old system of set asides and is searching for a new policy to maintain the exam schools' excellence without losing their minority populations. Last week, the board offered to settle the case, but Mr. McLaughlin declined.
To many, the quota system at the schools and the busing plan still in place are no longer useful - and may be adding to a racial imbalance. In 1972, Boston's 90,000 students were 52 percent white. In 1995, the 63,000 students were 18 percent white - a drop attributed to whites moving their children to private schools or suburbs.