School desegregation in Boston - era of struggle drawing to a close

Boston, after eight tumultuous years of court-enforced school integration, may soon become a haven of peaceful compliance. A negotiated consent decree is expected to end the city's long, often bitter integration struggle.

At his final court hearing of 1981, federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. said that he is ready to step aside as watchdog for Boston's troubled education system. The Boston School Committee now includes two blacks and three women among its five members and an atmosphere of goodwill prevails.

The 1981-82 school year contrasts sharply with 1980-81. Last year four school superintendents paraded through downtown headquarters. One school-board member was found guilty of extortion and a second member was tried on a similar charge. And Mayor Kevin H. White continuously threatened to close the schools because the school department budget was in the red.

Only one superintendent, Robert Spillane - who told the court he is committed to enforcing desegregation orders - has served during the current school year, and the department is adhering to a tight budget. Racial tensions have subsided, and only sporadic racial outbursts have occurred in city schools.

''We are working in the same vineyard - to improve education of children,'' the judge told Dr. Spillane after questioning him for two long hours. ''I have high hopes that negotiations for a consent decree will get me out of the schools as soon as possible.''

A consent decree - setting goals and dates for completing the desegregation process and providing ''quality education'' - would spell the end of the adversary approach to education for the first time since Judge Garrity first ordered Boston's public schools desegregated for the 1974-75 school year.

The principles in the case assured the court that they are working together voluntarily to develop solutions to unresolved issues - affirmative action in the hiring of teachers and administrators, integration of blacks and minority students into all phases of school activity, including test schools and special programs where the minority count has been small in the past, and involvement of parents in the planning process.

Today's atmosphere contrasts sharply with the ill feeling and racial tensions of 1974, when extra police were placed on duty to maintain the peace. Political leaders and public officials then immediately took a hard line stand against ''forced busing.'' White parents in South Boston decided to boycott South Boston High School, and other white communities such as Charlestown, East Boston, and Hyde Park openly protested the Garrity ruling.

Race is no longer the major issue. Finances and stability are. Public school enrollment - down from 90,000 in 1974 to 59,000 currently - has reversed from majority white to 51 percent black, 33 percent white, and 16 percent Hispanic and other minorities.

This year 13 schools have been closed, and more than 1,000 teachers let go.The school department will not be permitted to operate on a deficit.

Last November's election was the turning point for public schools. Boston voters elected a school committee pledged to support Judge Garrity's orders and to hammering out a consent decree with the plaintiffs.

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