When to End Busing?

THE Supreme Court recently broadened the powers of federal judges to effect sweeping school-desegregation plans. The court upheld the authority of a Kansas City judge to direct the school board to double local property taxes in order to pay for a ``magnet schools'' program devised to attract white students to black schools. Last month the high court also agreed to hear another kind of desegregation case. The issue: When may a court relieve a school district from a court-ordered plan because its schools are satisfactorily integrated?

The case arose in Oklahoma City, where court-ordered busing of elementary-school students began in the early '70s. In 1977, however, the court found that segregation in the district was ended, and in 1985 the district stopped busing children in the first four grades. Several black parents have sued to have the busing resumed, claiming that their children's schools would again become segregated by race, even in the absence of state-sponsored discrimination.

With changed housing patterns, most of the city's elementary schools remain racially balanced. But 10 schools are now totally black, and five are 80 percent white. Does this mean that busing failed to achieve its purpose, and should be reinstated?

Judicial activism to end school segregation has been intended not only to eliminate legal segregation - a relatively simple matter of wiping Jim Crow laws from the statute books - but also to efface the educational, sociological, and psychological legacy of segregation. Thus, the courts found, it wasn't enough just to remove legal barriers to racial mixing in the classroom; the courts had to, for a period, bring about the mixing.

Yet it was never envisioned that courts would run the schools in some 500 districts indefinitely; nor was it thought that court-ordered busing or other desegregation devices could ever achieve a perfectly uniform blending of the races in American schools.

Few would deny, though, that school desegregation has had a powerful effect on widening black opportunity and ameliorating racial divisions. Courts should move very deliberately in lifting desegregation decrees. A heavy burden rests on petitioners to prove not only that all barriers to integration have been destroyed, but also that, where racial imbalances persist, predominantly black schools are not discriminated against in terms of funding, facilities, teachers, or supplies.

Courts should be especially dubious about lifting such decrees when there is evidence that housing patterns or other factors will bring about the reestablishment of a dual school system, even though unsupported by law.

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