Boston's decision to end efforts to racially balance its schools - 25 years after a federal court ruled they were illegally segregated - is the latest sign that educational equity is being redefined in the United States.
From colleges in Texas and California to school districts in North Carolina and Kentucky, racial criteria in school admissions are being disallowed by or challenged in the courts - including in a case earlier this year involving a public exam-school in Boston.
The court cases, coupled with a growing public sentiment that remedies such as busing and affirmative action are no longer needed in America, are leading some cities to deemphasize race in favor of other options, such as charter schools, voucher plans, and a return to emphasizing neighborhood schools.
"Whether you're talking about Denver or Cleveland, they've reached the point that, while some gains were made under desegregation, there were inherent limitations," says Bruno Manno, an education analyst at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.
Closing the chapter on school desegregation is particularly symbolic in Boston, which, with rock-throwing and fiery riots, showed the nation how bitter court-ordered integration could be.
But to some observers, the Boston School Committee's vote Wednesday night to take race out of the school-placement process is an indication that desegregation, like a too-tight shell, is something the city has outgrown.
Boston School Superintendent Thomas Payzant and others who support the change say the racial mix of schools will not be significantly affected.
Since the city was ordered by a federal judge in 1974 to integrate neighborhood schools, which were largely white or largely black, the population has changed dramatically. A school system where white students used to be a slight majority is now about 85 percent people of color: 49 percent African-American, 26 percent Hispanic, and about 9 percent Asian.
Danger of resegregation?
But critics of the decision suggest that the Boston school system could face more court scrutiny if classrooms begin to resegregate.
"There is no big public outcry for changing this," says Charles Willie, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and one of the architects of Boston's current school-choice system.
He cites a 1995 study by Bain & Co. that found 80 percent of parents were satisfied with the status quo, and 90 percent of students got their first or second choice of schools.
But it was a new lawsuit, one filed recently by white families claiming they are being discriminated against under Boston's race-based plan, that helped propel the school committee's action. Rather than face the expense of fighting what it expected would be a losing battle, the school committee decided it was time to drop race and focus on the quality of the schools.
"Underlying all of this is a dose of good old common sense.... It's not the '70s. It's not the '80s. It's the end of the '90s," said Superintendent Payzant during a news conference Wednesday, standing amid a diverse group of parents, politicians, and community leaders.
Proponents of race as a still-needed factor, such as Dr. Willie, say the school committee is caving in to a frivolous lawsuit.
But many people who supported the desegregation efforts imposed by the courts are saying the time has come when it is possible to move beyond race.
"It's been 20 years, and you don't go on doing it forever," says Charles Glenn, an education professor at Boston University who was involved in the original fight to integrate the schools and has tracked it ever since.
"We may have reached the end of the usefulness of using race for distinguishing among folks," he says, adding a warning that the school committee is obligated to find an alternative plan to maintain equity.
Boston schools have operated under a "controlled choice" plan since 1989. Other than race, the elements of that plan will continue to shape which of the city's 129 schools a student is assigned to attend: where siblings go, the family's proximity to a school, and a lottery.
Some busing will continue, because school assignments are made within large zones, and some neighborhoods do not have enough schools to enable all students in the area to walk.
And although Mayor Thomas Menino (D) has pledged new schools for these communities, critics of Wednesday's decision say the minority families who dominate those underserved areas will bear the burden of less choice.
There are those, however, who say cities are backing away from desegregation prematurely.
"This nation never fulfilled the requirements of desegregation.," says Mr. Willie. "Our culture is really involved in a phase of cultural intolerance. It's manifested most strongly in the schools. [People in power feel] they're entitled to have what they want when they want it," he adds.
Another school district facing a similar lawsuit by white parents, Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, made a decision opposite to Boston's: It's defending its system in federal court. The school board is arguing that the magnet-school system needs to maintain separate lotteries for blacks and whites to ensure fair access to the area's better schools.
Louisville, Ky., is also facing a court fight over racial quotas - and, as in Boston, much of the debate centers on whether removing race as a factor would lead to resegregation.
Six African-American parents there are seeking to eliminate mandated percentages for each racial group in a school that prevent hundreds of African-American students from attending a historically black high school. These Louisville plaintiffs have said they are less concerned with racial balance than with improving the academic achievement of African-American students.
Some communities are eager to keep busing students, even when they aren't being watched by a judge. Fort Wayne, Ind., for instance, reached an out-of-court settlement in 1989 that established a magnet-school system to bring suburban white children voluntarily into city schools. Graduation rates improved, and a majority of adults and students want to keep the system in place.
But for cities that turn away from their desegregation plans, the jury is still out as to whether the alternatives being put in place will be effective.
"People say, 'We won't spend money on desegregation, but we'll make some wonderful schools,' " says Janet Schofield, a social psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh. "But over time, a lot of those special efforts erode away.... The question is whether those special things will still be around in 10 years."
*Staff writer Yvonne Zipp contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society