Is school desegregation a lost cause in Northern big cities?
Most statistics and current trends point to a ''yes'' answer. But desegregation proponents say that a stronger public commitment to the goal of racially balanced schools could go a long way toward scaling many of the present legal and demographic hurdles now blocking progress.
Northern industrial states - particularly in the Northeast - lag far behind their Southern counterparts in offering students desegregated education. Last year, almost half of all black public-school students in the Northeast attended schools that were 90 to 100 percent black, according to a new report to Congress by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political Studies. Illinois, where more than two-thirds of all black students attended such schools, led the list of offenders.
Progress in school desegregation has been much more pronounced in Southern and border states. A large part of the reason: enforcement efforts over the last few decades have largely focused on areas where segregation was established by law and where federal violations were easier to prove.
The dilemma facing educators and civil-rights advocates in the North is tougher, since many large city school systems are running out of white students. More than four-fifths of all public-school students in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, for instance, are black. A dramatic rise in the segregation of Hispanic students nationwide complicates the picture even further.
Yet the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, striking down ''separate but equal'' education, remains the law of the land.
The only viable way to desegregate schools in predominantly black systems, say the experts, is to corral the suburbs into some kind of metropolitan desegregation plan. The most effective approach has been a mandatory one-step pupil reassignment effort crossing district boundaries, according to last year's Vanderbilt Study, which analyzed several court cases, city experiences, and the findings of 1,200 academic studies.
But getting such a mandatory plan in place is never easy. Suburbs usually fight it. There are fewer than a half dozen working examples on record. Again, the South has been a better candidate for metropolitan plans because its school systems are often countywide and less tightly hemmed in by independent suburbs.
The big blow to the legal push for this kind of solution came in a 1974 Supreme Court ruling on a case involving Detroit schools. The court ruled that suburbs could not be drawn into a school desegregation plan unless it could be proved they were somehow liable for the city's pattern of segregation.
A handful of mandatory metropolitan desegregation plans - including those in Indianapolis, Louisville, Ky., and Wilmington, Del. - have made it into law since then. But all of those plans qualified as special circumstance cases. None were reviewed by the Supreme Court.
Gary Orfield, chief author of the Joint Center study and a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, says he thinks that sooner or later the Supreme Court will be forced to face up to its own ''impossible bind.'' The justices are caught, he says, between their earlier endorsement of desegregation in 1954 and their 1974 decision to all but close one of the most logical avenues toward accomplishing that end.
''The Court has worked itself into a terrible dilemma, and I think the Detroit decision will keep coming back until the issue is finally decided one way or another,'' he says. ''We're at the stage of asking the Court, 'Are you really serious about desegregation?' ''
Meanwhile, a suit filed by the St. Louis Board of Education against the state of Missouri, surrounding suburbs, and several area housing agencies looms as the next major metropolitan desegregation test case. The suit, filed on behalf of black students, contends that the defendants deliberately practiced discrimination, which led to existing city demographic patterns and housing segregation.
David Tatel, former head of the Office of Civil Rights in Washington and the lawyer representing the St. Louis school board in the case, is more optimistic than many experts in the field about the prospects for change.
''I think metropolitan desegregation is the right answer for large, racially isolated Northern cities,'' he says.''The hardest thing, of course, is to win the legal battles, but I'm optimistic about the St. Louis case. If city school boards bring the right kinds of cases, many suits will be successful.''
But some experts argue that any further progress hinges largely on stronger public support for desegregation and the availability of more dollars to carry on the legal fight.
''The legal push is not going to be substantial because it's so difficult to prove de jure segregation at the metropolitan level,'' says Dr. Willis Hawley, dean of Vanderbilt University's Peabody College and leader of the Vanderbilt study team. ''It takes an enormous amount of dollars and energy - and they just aren't there.''
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People education director Dr. Beverly Cole says she thinks the current political climate is holding back progress more than anything else.
''We know what techniques work but no one wants to make them work,'' she says. ''I think the problem is a lack of commitment and the federal government, which used to be an ally, is leading the way. . . .''
''All the signs suggest we're backing into a period of benign neglect,'' observes William Hazard, a professor of administration and policy studies in Northwestern University's School of Education. ''I think part of it is a post-Watergate fear of big systems. And I don't think the academic community has found the powerful evidence it expected in desegregation educational benefits.''
But some experts argue that the evidence is strong and that there is more of a consensus among scholars now on the worth of desegregation than there was.
The Vanderbilt analysis concluded that school desegregation has had positive effects on all children involved.
''Given the fact that we've fought desegregation with all of our imagination for 25 years,'' says Dr. Hawley, ''it's striking that the preponderance of evidence is that the achievement of minority kids and racial attitudes have generally improved with interracial contact.''
''I don't there's any political commitment (to school desegregation) but I do think there's a substantial body of commitment in the academic community,'' says Dr. Orfield. ''That commitment waned tremendously in the late '60s when there was a cynical feeling among many neo-conservatives that nothing worked. . . . But now I think we have a pretty good idea of which plans work best.''
Some civil rights advocates say it is useless to expect schools to desegregate without attacking housing segregation.
''There needs to be a much larger effort in public and private housing to break down the sheer apartheid that exists in some cities,'' Orfield says.
State legislators could order the kind of metropolitan redistricting that desegregation proponents want the courts to tackle. But their political vulnerability is greater, and so far they have shown little interest. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell's recent suggestion that legislatures give more serious consideration to reorganizing school districts for a better racial mix could make a difference.
Voluntary interdistrict efforts to desegregate schools, usually featuring magnet or specialized schools to attract a racially mixed group of students, are common. They have worked well in small cities and university towns. But most experts do not view them as very effective, or as an adequate substitute for mandatory desegregation in larger cities.