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Closing a chapter on school desegregation

By Stacy TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1999


Boston's decision to end efforts to racially balance its schools - 25 years after a federal court ruled they were illegally segregated - is the latest sign that educational equity is being redefined in the United States.

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From colleges in Texas and California to school districts in North Carolina and Kentucky, racial criteria in school admissions are being disallowed by or challenged in the courts - including in a case earlier this year involving a public exam-school in Boston.

The court cases, coupled with a growing public sentiment that remedies such as busing and affirmative action are no longer needed in America, are leading some cities to deemphasize race in favor of other options, such as charter schools, voucher plans, and a return to emphasizing neighborhood schools.

"Whether you're talking about Denver or Cleveland, they've reached the point that, while some gains were made under desegregation, there were inherent limitations," says Bruno Manno, an education analyst at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.

Closing the chapter on school desegregation is particularly symbolic in Boston, which, with rock-throwing and fiery riots, showed the nation how bitter court-ordered integration could be.

But to some observers, the Boston School Committee's vote Wednesday night to take race out of the school-placement process is an indication that desegregation, like a too-tight shell, is something the city has outgrown.

Boston School Superintendent Thomas Payzant and others who support the change say the racial mix of schools will not be significantly affected.

Since the city was ordered by a federal judge in 1974 to integrate neighborhood schools, which were largely white or largely black, the population has changed dramatically. A school system where white students used to be a slight majority is now about 85 percent people of color: 49 percent African-American, 26 percent Hispanic, and about 9 percent Asian.

Danger of resegregation?

But critics of the decision suggest that the Boston school system could face more court scrutiny if classrooms begin to resegregate.

"There is no big public outcry for changing this," says Charles Willie, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and one of the architects of Boston's current school-choice system.

He cites a 1995 study by Bain & Co. that found 80 percent of parents were satisfied with the status quo, and 90 percent of students got their first or second choice of schools.

But it was a new lawsuit, one filed recently by white families claiming they are being discriminated against under Boston's race-based plan, that helped propel the school committee's action. Rather than face the expense of fighting what it expected would be a losing battle, the school committee decided it was time to drop race and focus on the quality of the schools.

"Underlying all of this is a dose of good old common sense.... It's not the '70s. It's not the '80s. It's the end of the '90s," said Superintendent Payzant during a news conference Wednesday, standing amid a diverse group of parents, politicians, and community leaders.

Proponents of race as a still-needed factor, such as Dr. Willie, say the school committee is caving in to a frivolous lawsuit.

But many people who supported the desegregation efforts imposed by the courts are saying the time has come when it is possible to move beyond race.