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Will U.S. schools resegregate?

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court may make a decision that adds to a growing wall of segregation dividing many of the nation's school children.

In the controversial 1991 case of Freeman v. Pitts, William Eugene Pitts and other black DeKalb County, Georgia student charged that black children have historically been short-changed by a school system that uses race to assign pupils, teachers and dollars to county schools.

In its defense, the school system argues that it has completed its legal obligation to comply with court-ordered desegregation. Moreover, officials counter they have made an effort and should not be held responsible for any residual segregation.

This raises a related issue. If a school system has a history of segregation, when should federal judges bow out of local decision-making on student and teacher placement?

In 1990, the high court ruling in Board of Education of Oklahoma Public Schools v. Dowell established a test to determine if a previously segregated school district had fulfilled its duty to desegregate. The test asked: 1) Has the school district complied with court orders in good faith? and 2) Does evidence of segregation remain?

The American Civil Liberties Union, which argued the current case before the Supreme Court last October, says DeKalb fails both tests.

Why? Although DeKalb's schools are 47% black, county officials send 62% of all blacks to mostly black schools and 59% of white students attend mostly white schools. Black faculty are also assigned disproportionately to black schools. And, the ACLU says predominantly black schools receive 13.7% or $341 dollars less per student annually than predominantly white schools.

DeKalb school officials disagree. They argue that they tried to desegregate the county's schools and, in fact, satisfy the obligations of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which ordered desegregation of the nation's public schools.

The school system also blames demographic changes. These, they say, are responsible for the segregation of DeKalb county students, not their placement efforts. Although ACLU evidence suggests demographic changes came after the school segregation efforts rather than before, the issue is still not deemed relevant to the case.

But Christopher A. Hansen, the ACLU attorney who argued the case, says the court could rule any number of ways rather than a simple up or down decision. "Brown is not going to be reversed, certainly not openly reversed," he says.

Hansen argues that while DeKalb abolished its black schools when forced by the courts, it created new largely black schools by racially motivated placement. Another danger exists, he says. The court could possibly decide to overturn a previous ruling linking desegregation to housing segregation and vice versa. "If they uncouple that decision...," Hansen says, "that's a potentially bad ruling for the civil rights community."

A new study (see chart) by the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which cites growing segregation, also focuses attention on the ruling. The study shows a "clear pattern" of big-city increases in segregation. For example, it says 19% of black students attend schools that are 99-100% minority, while in the Northeast, the figure is 32%. The association bases its study on the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education 1988 data from 40,000 schools.

Thus, although Hansen says a verdict for DeKalb's black students has more symbolic than legal weight, "It's very important to send a signal that the nation's commitment to racial desegregation hasn't ended."
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Author:Dumas, Kitty
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:571
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