New ruling tests schools under desegregation orders

Email|Print| Text size + By Allen G. Breed
Associated Press / November 12, 2007

NEW YORK - Officials in Shelby County, Tenn., say they will have to spend millions to satisfy a federal judge's "arbitrary" desegregation order. It will mean busing minority students up to an hour away and replacing hundreds of white teachers with black ones, they say.

In Huntsville, Ala., under a similar court order, students can transfer from a school where they are in the racial majority, but not the other way around.

And in the Tucson Unified School District, students could move from one school to another only if the change improved "the ethnic balance of the receiving school and [does] not further imbalance the ethnic makeup of the home school."

The US Supreme Court has consistently moved away from using race as a factor in deciding where children should go to school. It recently ruled that two districts' heavy reliance on race in student assignment policies violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

But there are still hundreds of districts across the country, from the Northeast to the Southwest, that operate under federal court desegregation orders - some more than four decades old.

These districts are living in what critics consider a historical Twilight Zone, where federal judges can make seemingly contradictory decisions.

"So which ruling do I violate?" asks a perplexed Bobby Webb, superintendent of schools in Shelby County, where Memphis is located. "The judge's ruling now, or the earlier rulings that we can't discriminate against people on the basis of the color of their skin?"

Front-page court battles over integration are mostly a thing of the past. But according to the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, there are at least 253 school districts still under federal court supervision in racial inequality cases - and those are just the ones in which Justice intervened.

Many of the more infamous names - Boston, Little Rock, Charlotte, N.C. - are gone from the list, having satisfied judges with their desegregation efforts and being granted what is called "unitary status." In the last two years alone, at least 75 districts have won such status.

Of those that remain, most are in the South. Georgia leads with 61, followed by Mississippi with 51, Alabama with 50, and Louisiana with 30. But longstanding cases are pending in Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana, and Illinois.

In June, the court ruled that student assignment policies in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., relied too heavily on individual students' races and were unconstitutional. But in those two districts, there were no orders to remedy past state-sponsored segregation.

On the other hand, districts operating under integration orders may set policies that explicitly consider race. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg acknowledged the "anomaly" of demanding that such districts work diligently toward racial integration, but once it has been achieved, mandating that race be ignored.

"What's constitutionally required one day gets constitutionally prohibited the next day," she said. "That's very odd."

In Memphis, the school board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a joint motion to end 44 years of court oversight. The Department of Justice joined in, writing that on the whole, the district had "complied in good faith with its obligations" to desegregate.

US District Judge Bernice Bouie Donald disagreed strongly.

While Donald agreed that Shelby County had achieved integration in school staffing, transportation, and facilities, she ruled that the district was still woefully deficient when it came to student and faculty assignment.

Donald ordered that the racial composition in each school, "of both faculty and students," mirror the overall student population, within 15 percentage points.

The board asked for a stay, arguing that meeting Donald's "arbitrary" demands would force the district to hire hundreds of new black teachers and bus 9,000 pupils - or about 20 percent of the total student population - for up to an hour a day at an additional cost for transportation alone of more than $1.6 million a year.

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