DURING the years when Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement, school desegregation was a key focal point in the crusade for equal treatment of blacks and other minorities. So it's ironic that, just before the holiday marking Dr. King's birth and on his actual birthday, the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling whose effect may be to slow or even reverse school-integration efforts. The issue: May school districts abandon busing or other court-ordered desegregation plans once they have eliminated the effects of previous official segregation? In 1985 the Oklahoma City school district, with the consent of the supervising judge, stopped busing pupils in the first through fourth grades. Black parents and civil rights activists sued, noting that a number of elementary schools in the city quickly reverted to being virtually all-white or all-black. The school district said the racial imbalances resulted from external housing patterns.
The Supreme Court agreed 5 to 3 that court-ordered school-desegregation plans were temporary measures to redress past discrimination, and that schools could discontinue such plans once the ``vestiges'' of official segregation ``had been eliminated as far as practicable.''
In general, local control of schools is preferable to control by federal judges. But school segregation was a grievous wrong, practiced over many decades. It's unlikely that all the weeds sown by such discrimination can be uprooted by desegregation plans in place for a few short years.
In applying the Supreme Court's new test, lower courts should be rigorous in defining the ``vestiges'' of discrimination and in determining if school districts have taken all ``practicable'' remedial steps. And education officials in released districts must assiduously ensure that predominantly minority schools are not shortchanged.
Meanwhile, the struggle to improve education for minorities continues on many fronts besides the legal one. Especially in the nation's largest urban school districts - most of which are now overwhelmingly black and Hispanic - it sometimes seems a losing battle: Dropout and teen-pregnancy rates keep rising, as average minority achievement levels continue to lag.
But creative and innovative thinking is being applied to the problem, and must be encouraged. A coalition of the largest urban school districts in the United States has drawn up a compact specifying a number of goals to be attained over the next decade. The goals, including more widespread more widespread pre-school help and lower drop-out rates, merge with those of President Bush's education summit. Progress toward these goals won't be easy, especially in a time of recession and great pressure on school budgets, but it's far from impossible.
There could be no greater tribute to Martin Luther King than an America in which quality education is genuinely available to every one of its children.