Chicago backing away from forced busing to integrate its schools

As if in anticipation of the country's apparent conservative tilt, the Chicago school desegregation program launched last September seems headed away from forced busing.

Proponents of the plan feel it may be the only answer to solving the knotty desegregation problem posed by a student population that is nearly 60 percent black. But critics are concerned that the plan falls far short of the goal of providing equal educational opportunities for minorities.

Other school desegregation programs from Pittsburgh and Columbus to Dallas and Los Angeles indicate that using mandatory busing to achieve court-determined black-white ratios in individual schools has one virtually guaranteed effect -- "white flight." Well-publicized busing apparently scares worried white parents into switching their children to suburban schools or private schools not affected by desegregation plans.

Los Angeles School Board spokesman Patrick Spencer says that with 22,000 pupils from 153 court-selected schools being bused today, "mandatory busing has created a lot of white flight." With busing there now expanded to include grades one through nine, with another grade level to be added each year, Spencer says the result is that "actually we have fewer kids in a desegregated situation now than in our first year. . . . Most of the minority kids have to remain in segregated situations."

Years of delays in developing a program to meet federal desegregation guidelines have cost Chicago millions of dollars in federal education funds. Now Chicago's new minority-controlled school board has worked out a unique program with the US Department of Justice.

Its objective is to avoid the educationally and financially costly white flight while providing better education for the 299,000 black students in a 500, 000 school population that is only 18.5 percent white.

Chicago's school board hopes to meet that tall order with voluntary programs such as magnet schools to encourage integration, backed up with mandatory programs to be used "only as a last resort." Under a consent decree worked out with the Justice Department and coordinated with 20 federal agencies, Chicago hopes to cut through the segregation knot by attacking not only school segregation but also the housing, transportation, and employment patterns that perpetuate segregation.

Key both to the school board's hopes and critics' attacks on its proposals is the consent decree's recognition "that racial and ethnic balance throughout the Chicago School District is neither practicable nor required, and that no particular definition of a desegregated school is required."

According to a recent federal survey, 80 percent of elementary pupils in Chicago remain in schools at least 95 percent white or at least 95 percent minority. Other cities have responded to similar imbalances by setting black-white quotas for individual schools. In the consent decree worked out between the Justice Department and South Bend, Ind., for example, the percentage of black students in each school must be within 15 percent of the racial balance of the city's school system as a whole.

Under earlier federal proposals for Chicago, a maximum limit of 50 percent whites or 65 percent blacks would have applied to every school. Under current federal guidelines, by March the school board must come up with a plan to create "the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools." But there is no requirement that all-black schools be eliminated.

Instead, the school board's desegregation chairman, Joyce Hughes, a black, acknowledges that a number of all-black schools will remain. Her answer is a plan that will "provide educational equity in the remaining racially isolated schools" and overcome the prejudice that black schools are inherently inferior.

To critics, that solution sounds like a return to "separate but equal." According to Joseph L. Rauh Jr., general counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., under Chicago's consent decree "many schools will remain 100 percent black." That prospect is "totally unacceptable," Mr. Rauh says, because "I don't believe separate is ever equal."

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