Student diversity through busing: Not as easy as it sounded

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When the US Supreme Court decides this summer if it is constitutional for the University of Michigan to use race as a factor in its admissions policies, the justices might also decide the fate of a variety of public school programs used to foster racial diversity in grades K-12. A broad finding against race-based programs is likely to end such programs at hundreds of schools.

"If the court hands down a wide-ranging decision saying race can never be taken into account, it would likely put an end to these voluntary programs," says Michael Simpson, a lawyer at the National Education Association.

In Montgomery County, Md., for example, a federal court struck down a policy that prohibited a white student from transferring

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from a minority-dominated school into a white-dominated one. The prestigious Boston Latin school was also recently ordered to stop factoring race into its enrollment decisions.

Districts that have been ordered to use race as a remedy for previous discrimination won't be affected by the justices' decision, but the Court has already made it easier for such schools to get out from under these orders.

Advocates argue that diversity is vital in grades K-12. "It's during these ages when children form stereotypes," says Julie Underwood at the National School Board Association.

Some school districts are reevaluating diversity programs partly because statistics show they have failed to improve minority- student test scores. In early May, the Evanston (Illinois) Elementary School District Board - one of the first in the nation to adopt such a program - voted to reevaluate its busing policy.

Now, no more than 60 percent of a school's students can be composed of one minority group. The district buses some students to schools outside their own communities to meet the percentages.

But the school district says the test scores of black and Hispanic students have not improved since busing began in 1984. Many in Evanston believe busing should be reexamined, but want to keep diversity as a goal.

"It's important that my child go to a school with a mix of students," says Mary Munro, whose son attends Oakton Elementary. "It's a good thing for the community to aim for."

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