THE tide may have shifted in one of America's key tactics for dealing with school desegregation, as the result of a ruling the US Supreme Court issued on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. The court said Jan. 15 that formerly segregated school systems under court order to desegregate may be permitted to end busing if they have made all ``practicable'' efforts to end what it called the ``vestiges'' of segregation by law. It did not spell out what it meant by practicable and vestiges, leaving those definitions for lower courts and future suits in courts at all levels.
The Supreme Court sent the case, which involved the Oklahoma City schools, back to a lower court to decide whether that school system had made good faith efforts to eliminate ``the vestiges of past discrimination ... to the extent practicable.'' It is up to lower courts to develop standards for deciding how well school districts have complied with this Supreme Court decision.
Over the last 15 years the court has tended to decide difficult busing cases in favor of a continuation of busing, says Michael McConnell, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School. ``This is the first major indication that they may be moving in the other direction.''
In another 10 years America likely will regard this ruling as ``a very significant turning point'' in the long-term struggle to gain equal quality of schooling for minority youngsters, Professor McConnell says. That is because the ruling shows that the court ``no longer sees busing as a remedy of choice in the educational area,'' he adds.
But in the short term, what the court decided will directly affect a relatively small percentage of America's schools.
This decision does not have immediate implications ``for many of our larger cities because many of them are not and have not been under court order to desegregate'' their schools, says John Chubb, an education expert at the Brookings Institution. ``Most of the cities that are affected are in the South,'' he says.
In past years, a court decision on school busing would have resulted in passionate comment, both pro and con, and large, emotional demonstrations. The current decision produced neither.
In part this change stems from America's preoccupation with the Gulf war. But the change also stems from Americans' ebbing confidence that racially balanced schools are an effective way to improve the education of minority children. Both black and white critics have shown a growing dissatisfaction with busing, Mr. Chubb says, on the grounds that busing has ``become an end to itself'' - that the focus of efforts to improve the education of minority children had shifted from educational excellence to classroom racial proportions.
In 1954 the US Supreme Court outlawed state laws that required schools to be segregated in much of America. For the subsequent two decades or more, those seeking to bring the education of minority children into equality with those of white children used school integration as a keystone of their approach.
But in recent years public attitudes have been turning from desegregation to improving the quality of education at neighborhood schools, in black as well as white communities, says Douglas Besharov, a lawyer and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Disadvantaged minorities aren't saying `integration.' What they're saying is: `quality schools.'''
Julius Chambers and some other black leaders disagree. Mr. Chambers, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, says that he and his organization continue ``to believe that black children are denied equal educational opportunity in segregated schools.'' As a result, Mr. Chambers said, the Legal Defense and Education Fund is ``fully prepared to respond to challenges to school desegregation plans that now might be raised in lower courts as a result of this ruling. ...''
As to the future, Mr. Beshharov says, ``my sense is that you will see more and more community pride and efforts to build strong community schools ... The first thing on the minds of people with children is [not integrated schools but] safe schools that teach their kids.''