Boston, which six years ago was in the grip of racial and neighborhood strife over the issue of "forced busing," may set a pattern for Northern big-city school systems to provide quality, desegregated education to children of minority and low-income families.
US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity has retained tight control over the operations of the Hub's public schools under desegregation orders he issued in 1974 and 1975. But the judge now says he is willing to drop his control by the end of 1980, provided certain conditions are met: conformity to court guidelines which indicate the level of race-mixing across the school system that constitutes racial balance; successful institution of a vocational education system to prepare high- school graduates for entry-level jobs; and adoption of a facilities-use plan the assure continued desegregation and quality education.
Superintendent Robert C. Wood says Boston's public schools can meet these demands. "WE have made many changes; we have integrated our system, and we have stabilized our schools," he says. "But we still have work to do."
Among the major challenges facing the Boston school system, whether or not Judge Garrity relinquishes day-to-day control, are budget pressures that are unlikely to let up as costs continue to rise, the state tightens up on aid to municipalities, and the pressure stays on to hold down local taxes. Also, it will not be easy to maintain meaningful desegregation as enrollment drops -- with the percentage of whites decreasing steadily and the number of children from non- English-speaking backgrounds rising.
Dr. Wood admits he is concerned about the nearly 30 percent drop in enrollment -- from 90,000 in 1974 to 66,000 in 1980. The proportion of whites in the system fell from 65 percent to 39 percent of total enrollment.
But the superintendent says he hopes to reverse the trend that has made the Boston school system, like those of many other cities, more than 50 percent nonwhite. "We want our schoold to continue to offer a balanced racial and ethnic mix," he says.
Dr. Wood answer: a drive to get white Boston parents to take their children out of private and parochial schools and return them to the city system. His sales pitch: Boston offers better education as evidenced by rising test scores, an updated vocational education system to begin with new facilities in September , and the rarity of racial incidents in the schools this past year, even in South Boston. Only one major racial incident occurred during the school year.
An alternative sought by plaintiffs in a number of desegregation suits around the nation -- inclusion of suburban systems in a metropolitan plan -- is not a major concern of Dr. Wood or of the black plaintiffs in Boston's court case.
More than 30 suburban systems are voluntarily busing 3,000 inner-city Boston blacks to their schools through Metco (Metropolitan Council for Education). Some suburban school departments with declining enrollments indicate they would accept more Metco students, but a tight state budget will prevent further increases at this time. As a whole over the past few years, Boston has not set an example for racial harmony. There have been serious racial incidents, including killings, in several sections of the city.
But, superintendent Wood points out, racial violence no longer centers on the schools, which were free of all but a few minor incidents -- some would say a "normal" amount -- in the 1979-80 academic year.
Mayor Kevin H. White has announced a new Boston Commission Against Discrimination to help maintain racial harmony.