Despite busing, school segregation grows

School segregation is on the rise in large US cities. Some big-city school districts, however, have made substantial progress toward an even racial mix of pupils - using, for the most part, the controversial tool of busing, that reaches deep into predominantly-white suburbs.

These conclusions were reached by a just-released report, done at the behest of a congressional committee, that for the first time analyzes Department of Education racial enrollment data.

Though school segregation and forced busing have caused bitter political battles in Washington since the mid-'60s, segregated schools are not a problem in many areas of the United States, the report points out. In 1980, 20 states had substantially mixed student populations, with three-quarters or more of their black students in public schools where the majority of pupils were white.

States that once strictly segregated students have made great strides toward integration. Delaware, Kentucky, and Florida have all increased the number of blacks who attend integrated schools by more than 35 percent. Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and many other Southern states have made similar progress.

''There are many states where the segregation problem has been substantially resolved,'' says Gary Orfield, a University of Chicago professor and author of the study for the House subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights.

The problem is that the deepest pockets of segregation - mostly large cities outside the Deep South - have proved resistant to change. In 1968, six of the 10 largest US public school systems had student populations that were more than half minority. By 1980, all 10 had more than two-thirds minority students, and the percentage was rapidly rising.

The change was most rapid in Sunbelt cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami; but Northern cities such as Detroit and Chicago also have larger percentages of black and Hispanic students.

''We are becoming a society with enormous variations in regards to integration,'' Dr. Orfield says. ''The South and border states have made progress,'' while Northeast cities have in many cases become more segregated.

And efforts in many of these cities to improve the racial mix of students have not helped. The number of whites enrolled in Houston schools has dropped 62 percent since 1968, despite a voluntary desegregation plan. Detroit and Memphis, both with court-ordered citywide busing, have lost more than half their white students over the past 14 years.

In these instances, ''busing had only a modest and perhaps temporary effect on enrollment changes,'' the report concludes, before the powerful demographic change of declining white populations swept away the gains.

But integration plans can be made to work, Orfield insists. The key is designing them around entire metropolitan areas, instead of just central-city school districts.

The most progress toward school desegregation was made in Louisville, Ky.; Tampa, Fla.; and Wilmington, Del., the report points out - cities where busing plans reach out and include suburbia. Louisville and Wilmington merged previously independent city and suburban school systems under court order.

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