Chicago, with the third-largest public school system in the United States, has won at least one more year's delay in its 20- year battle against parental, state, and federal pressure for desegregation.
Under an agreement worked out with the US Justice Department, Chicago's Board of Education has until next March to come up with an acceptable desegregation plan to be implemented for the 1981-82 school year.
The agreement, described as a "landmark" by some and a "sellout" by others, comes:
* 2 1/2 years after a State of Illinois report concluded that Chicago has "the most highly segregated public schools of any large metropolitan area in the country."
* 18 months after a US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) study found that Chicago has "intentionally created and maintained a racially discriminatory dual school system."
* 11 months after HEW turned the Chicago case over to the Justice Department for prosecution.
Advocates of the preliminary desegregation agreement, announced Sept. 24, point out that it won unanimous support from Chicago's new school board. For the first time, this board has a black president and its three white members are outnumbered by five blacks and three Hispanics.
Yet critics are angered that the agreement lays down no quotas for racial balance in schools here and accepts that a number of schools will remain all black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which helped initiate Justice Department action, accuses the federal authorities of watering down earlier desegregation demands.
The agreement states, in part, that "the plan will provide for the establishment of the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools, considering all the circumstances in Chicago."
According to school board spokesmen, a key limiting factor on any desegregation plan is the overall racial balance in the city's public schools. Last year 60.7 percent of the 480,000 public school students in Chicago were black; 20 percent were white, and 17.2 percent were Hispanic. This year, whites are expected to drop to 18.5 percent of enrollment citywide.
The result, say officials here, is that there simply are not enough whites to go around. Accordingly, the new agreement calls on the city to provide special educational programs to upgrade standards for schools that cannot be integrated.
The school board view is that the agreeement is a breakthrough because, unlike earlier voluntary desegregation agreements forced on the city by legal action, this one is being closely monitored by a US district court -- as was the case in Boston's widely publicized desegregation program. Thus, although the guidelines appear to some to allow a return to "separate but equal" status, at least there is provision for federal oversight and enforcement.
School board officials also point out that it would have been wrong to come up with "some instantaneous, overnight solution which would have ruled out community input."
Under the new agreement, the US Department of Education is providing a $422, 800 grant that will pay for a full-time planning staff, outside consultants, and a program to encourage community participation in drawing up the final desegregation plan for Chicago over the next six months.
Another safeguard built into the agreement is that mandatory busing to link city and suburban schools must be included in any desegregation plan, to offer a last resort if all else fails. The agreement also states that "mandatory measures can include redrawing school attendance zones, reorganizing grade structures of schools, pairing and clustering of schools, and busing of students."
Clearly, officials here hope to avoid mandatory busing -- and like to avoid even mentioning it as a possibility. Instead, they hope that a well-drawn program based on improving standards overall and on so-called "magnet" schools will bring Chicago into compliance with the state and federal regulations.
Key to improvements will be federal desegregation funds under the Emergency School Aid Act -- money that has been denied to Chicago since 1972 because of segregation practices.
Allocation of any new federal funds will be closely monitored by the Justice Department to ensure that they are used in the most effective way to end segregation.