The desegregation business, 1983

America has been at the desegregation business for almost 30 years. Though it has been a long and sometimes difficult undertaking, there are current signs that we have made some progress in learning to manage the challenge:

In St. Louis, the first large-scale voluntary busing plan has recently been announced. Twenty-two suburban school districts have enlisted in a program that will bring as many as 15,000 black youngsters from city schools while sending white volunteers to specialized magnet schools in the city.

A Chicago federal court has approved a consent decree worked out between the Justice Department and local school officials. Instead of demanding that schools be racially balanced, an unrealistic goal in a city where 83 percent of the students are nonwhite, the decree couples voluntary desegregation efforts with an ambitious campaign to reform the schools. Magnet schools will draw students from the entire city; the curriculum in the regular schools will be beefed up.

In Boston, where federal district court judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. has for the past eight years scrutinized the minutest details of that troubled city's desegregation, the court has begun to disentangle itself from the web of administration.

The task of monitoring the desegregation decree has been turned over to the Massachusetts Board of Education. If all goes well, in two years the Boston school committee will reclaim full responsibility for running its own schools.

Boston's educators have meanwhile embarked on a pathbreaking venture, the Boston Compact, enlisting the cooperation of the city's biggest business, financial, and academic institutions. The school district has committed itself to strengthening its educational program and demanding better performance from its students; for their part, Boston businesses have promised jobs to those who stay the course.

A dozen years ago, San Francisco became the first big northern city to put court-ordered busing into effect, and the school district has been in and out of court regularly ever since.

A consent agreement between school officials and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which initiated the litigation, concludes this phase of the struggle. San Francisco will assure that no single race or group - blacks, whites, Asians, or Hispanics - comprises more than 45 percent of the students in any school.

Four new academically enriched schools, including a computer science elementary school, will open in the predominantly black Hunter's Point neighborhood, with the state footing part of the bill for these increased expenditures.

Except locally these reports offer scant headline-grabbing excitement, but they deserve wide attention nonetheless.

Each reflects a carefully crafted solution to policy dilemmas undreamed of in the heady aftermath of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which declared segregation unconstitutional. And each offers some useful lessons concerning both educational policy and the courts.

Racial justice concerns desegregation in the schools. It also entails turning schools into places of learning.

Those who urge that racial mixing be forgotten, that attention be devoted instead to upgrading the quality of ghetto schools, would turn the clock back to the Jim Crow days of ''separate but equal.'' That is just what the Supreme Court decried in the Brown decision; and as a policy, even benign separation is social dynamite.

Substantial racial mixing may not be possible in overwhelmingly black cities such as Chicago where busing students would have prompted white families to seek refuge in the suburbs. Elsewhere, though, serious efforts to bring black and white students together - voluntarily, if at all possible, as in St. Louis - deserve to be pursued.

Racial justice means more than just mixing bodies, however. Desegregation is, after all, occurring in the schools, whose original and ultimate mission is education.

In Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, and San Francisco, the advent of racial mixing has prompted educators to rethink what they're doing in the classroom, leading them to establish magnet schools, overhaul the curriculum, and collaborate with businesses. Those are laudable developments.

Judges in desegregation cases have been more reviled than revered, but they deserve a hand for what they've accomplished. These stories suggest that reports of an imperial judiciary exaggerate the facts.

Even Judge Garrity, whose close watch over the Boston schools won him few friends, acted only when forced to by the obstructionist antics of a school district whose leaders made political careers out of judge-baiting.

Once Boston made its peace with the Constitution, the court began absenting itself from the fray.

Elsewhere, as in St. Louis, Chicago, and San Francisco, courts have pressed for an agreement between the antagonists.

It bears remembering that, before the initiation of these suits, blacks were truly the invisible men of public education, their legitimate concerns largely unacknowledged.

The threat of court suit has sometimes prompted admirable initiatives. Fear of being hauled into court led the St. Louis suburban communities to adopt a voluntary busing plan, thus ending an 11-year dispute.

Once a lawsuit has been filed, though, judges have striven to avoid the blood-letting that accompanies a trial. The plans approved by the judges have been both educationally sensible and legally sound.

What the judges have learned in these cases bears underlining, for it may just be the desegregation story of the 1980s. Courts often do best by doing least, encouraging the community - the entire community, not just the old guard elite - to determine what kind of education makes best sense in keeping with the Constitution.

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