Busing: the wrong riders

More than 25 years after the US Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools, most youngsters attending big-city schools in the North this year remain racially isolated -- and prospects for improvement any time soon are not bright. The South has registered dramatic gains since the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, and hundreds of small and mediumsized cities across the US continue to make slow progress toward the elimination of racial barriers. But the sad fact is that housing patterns, disparities in income and employment, the flight of middle-income whites and blacks from the inner city to suburbia, and other social factors are proving far harder to crack than were the early legal barriers toppled by the civil rights drivers of the 1960s.

One of the biggest stumblingblocks remains the controversy over court-ordered busing. Around major cities in particular the issue has served to harden resistance to school integration. The real tragedy is that it has diverted public attention from what school integration is supposed to be all about: complying with the law of the land, providing equal educational opportunities for all children, and fostering a national and community climate that encourages youngsters and parents of all races and cultural backgrounds to learn and live and work together.

That some members of Congress have lost sight of this high goal is evident in the continuing attempts to attack riders to appropriations bills that would bar spending by federal agencies to enforce antidiscrimination laws. A number of such measures are included in 1981 appropriations provisions which will be taken up when Congress returns to work after the election. One rider, for instance, would prohibit spending by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, and related agencies on "numerically based remedies" to discrimination. Another would prohibit spending to carry out a court order or injunction.

The most potentially damaging one of these appropriations riders, passed by both houses of Congress, would bar the Justice Department from use of funds "to bring any sort of action to require directly or indirectly the transportation of any student to a school other than the school which is nearest the student's home." Civil rights lawyers warn that the rider, if not blocked in Congress or vetoed by the President, would virtually remove the federal government's authority to enforce desegregation. It would stop federal officials from either initiating school desegregation law suits with busing as a remedy or intervention in suits brought privately. Despite its unpopularity in the suburbs, civil rights advocates insist that busing or metropolitan-wide mergers of urban and suburban schools remain the only solution for many big cities.

Even if efforts led by Senator Weicker and others to block the rider to the Justice Department appropriations bill succeed, its underlying message will certainly not be lost on local school officials looking to Congress for leadership in trying to determine how to respond to desegregation directives. Experience has shown that in school districts where parents, teachers, and administrators are committed to working together to make desegregation work, it usually does succeed. But where the official attitude is to do as little as possible, segregation persists.

Chicago, with the country's third largest public school system, is a case in point. For years the city successfully resisted federal attempts to desegregate a system described ina State of Illinois report as "the most highly segregated public schools of any large metropolitan area in the country." The school board and the Justice Department now have finally reached preliminary agreement on a desegregation plan which many civil rights workers decry as still more footdragging. But the plan does, for the first time, include important government recognition of the connection that exists between jobs, housing, and school desegregation. As part of the consent decree the Justece Department agreed to set up an interagency federal task force to assist Chicago minorities in finding jobs, housing, and schools in the suburbs while, at the same time, trying to make the city attractive to more prosperous whites.

Educators familiar with desegregation efforts across the US stress that school desegregation frequently contributes to community- wide desegregation. Those school districts that make the greatest progress generally succeed in establishing a climate of racial harmony and cooperation that extends beyond the classroom. In the final analysis, what is needed is a renewed sense of dedication on the part of Americans and their elected leaders to rid their schools -- and their communities -- of discriminatory racial practices that have no room in a democratic and just society.

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