Desegregation Redux

DESEGREGATION currently defers to abortion in demanding the attention of the United States Supreme Court. But the issue that most Americans describe simply as "busing" still occupies a front seat.

The high court observed a landmark April 20, when it ordered reopening of a case involving the school system which was the target of the suit that became the vehicle for reaching the 1954 school desegregation decision.

The Topeka, Kan., suit - Brown v. Board of Education - set in motion a process that has affected generations of American schoolchildren for better or worse, depending on one's point of view.

The current issue in Topeka over what constitutes compliance with the 1954 Supreme Court decision harks back to the original issue of separate and unequal education.

Rulings on individual cases in recent years give the impression of a court divided and uncertain on this social dilemma that refuses to go away.

Topeka stepped back into the desegregation spotlight when, in 1979, black parents brought suit in US district court, charging that the city's schools retained elements of racial segregation. The judge ruled in 1987 that the district was fully integrated, and he dismissed the suit.

But the US court of appeals, saying there were, indeed, elements of segregation, reversed that finding.

At this point the Supreme Court ordered the court of appeals to reopen the Topeka suit and reassess its finding in light of the high court's March 31 ruling that federal courts may progressively cease supervising school districts in which there is "incremental" (step-by-step) integration.

It further said that resegregation of schools because of "white flight" - and not because of school policy - is not necessarily unconstitutional.

The high court also advised the appeals court to refer to its January 1991 ruling in an Oklahoma City case. The justices (in a 5-3 vote) indicated that schools could be released from busing if all "practicable" steps to eliminate segregation have been taken.

Yet the justices are not simply throwing up their hands and abandoning efforts to achieve social justice in education. In another recent ruling, they said that the Boston school system must continue hiring minority teachers until at least 25 percent of the teachers and administrators are black and 10 percent members of other minority groups.

How do you differentiate between "incremental" steps and just plain stalling? Are there to be clear, enforceable guidelines for lower courts and school officials to apply to their situations?

Perhaps answers can be hoped for when the Supreme Court adjusts to its new conservative majority - and chooses a case with which to establish a clear policy.

Until then, a lot of school officials may be left scratching their heads over "increments" and "vestiges."

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