AT a time when South Africa is starting to consider allowing blacks and whites to attend school together, American schools are losing the gains they made in school desegregation, say black desegregation experts. ``The percentage of black students attending predominantly black schools in 1991 is about the same as it was in 1970,'' says Audrey Fisher, education specialist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The Supreme Court considers the issue sufficiently important to have chosen to hear two cases within the past year. One, a ruling in January on the status of the Oklahoma City school district, is considered a landmark case.
The 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, made segregated schools illegal. Court orders starting in the 1960s required districts with dual schools to develop desegregation plans, including mandatory busing. But many of those school districts that were later found to be sufficiently desegregated to have ``unitary'' status, are rapidly becoming resegregated, says Dr. Fisher. Officials of some districts don't even know they are under court order and are doing nothing to comply with it. ``Housing and populations continue to shift and school districts not taking positive action to keep up with the changes,'' she says.
Charles Willie, a Harvard University professor of education and urban studies, says that school districts that aren't completely desegregated are being found unitary by the courts. Milwaukee's plan, he says, left no schools all-white, but 20 schools all-black. St. Louis and Atlanta did the same thing.
David Armor, a visiting professor of sociology at Rutgers University, and a desegregation expert, says there is a split in public thought over the real intent of Brown v. Board of Education. In his opinion it was to dismantle segregation and annul state laws that required segregated schools. Others feel, he says, that the intent was to integrate all schools. The difference between those two views is keeping the issue from being clearly settled, says Armor.
Those opposed to busing to achieve desegregation are encouraged by the Oklahoma City case. It that made it easier for school systems to be released from court-ordered busing if they had made all ``practicable'' efforts to end ``vestiges'' of segregation. But the high court left it up to lower courts to define terms.
The court has also agreed to hear a case in Georgia that may go a different direction. A federal appeals court in Atlanta decided that the DeKalb County school district could not be freed from the busing order because all aspects of school life - faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, student assignments, and facilities - also had to be desegregated at the same time.
FISHER says the Justice Department, which is in charge of making sure school districts are in compliance with court orders, are not aggressively going after districts not in compliance, and has encouraged districts that feel they have achieved unitary status to let the department know.
``We're anticipating that school boards will see how they stack up [to the Oklahoma City case],'' says Amy Casner, spokeswoman for the Justice Department. ``If they want to exit a decree or exit a federally mandated busing program we would certainly give them a fair hearing.''
There are 470 school districts under federal consent decrees, says Ms. Casner, who refused to say how many were seeking to exit those decrees.
Dr. Willie says the 1954 decision was problematic from the start. Giving local school boards which had created segregated schools the responsibility of dismantling them, in effect ``put the fox in charge of the chickens after the fox was caught stealing them,'' he says.
Under the Civil Rights Act, many districts were ordered by the courts to adopt busing plans to achieve desegregation. White parents responded by moving elsewhere, sending their children to private schools, or building their own, separate schools.
Black parents had their own problems with it. Too often, says Fisher, ``it was their children who had to get up early, travel for hours, arrive at school tired and hungry.'' The burden of busing fell upon black children.
Willie says busing is a false issue. ``It's just transportation. We use transportation to go to and from churches, jobs, etc. Health centers, jobs, and churches don't operate on a neighborhood basis, why should schools? Busing has no relationship to the quality of education. It's sad to see an entire nation fall for propaganda of busing, as if that was important to learning.''
Alternatives to busing have been developed: redistricting; magnet schools, which attract students on the basis of the schools' focus on specific subjects; or the choice method, whereby parents can choose which schools their children attend.
Drs. Armor and Willie have both helped districts create desegregation plans, although on opposite sides of the ideological fence. Willie favors a ``controlled choice'' system in which 90 percent of students get their first or second choice of schools within a school district, but the school district has the final word. Armor says controlled choice is mandatory busing in disguise and that the figures do not take into account the parents who decide to pull their children out of the school system.
Little Rock, Ark., rejected a controlled choice plan after a year.