The Slate Gist

School Desegregation

Forty-two years after Brown vs. Board of Education, what has happened to school desegregation? How integrated are America’s schools? What is the legal status of court-ordered desegregation? Whatever became of “busing”?

There have been three stages of Supreme Court jurisprudence on desegregation since the landmark 1954 Brown case. In the first stage, from 1955 to 1974, the court gave federal district courts broad authority to impose remedies for segregation, including busing. In the second stage, from 1974 to 1991, it curtailed the authority of the lower courts by virtually forbidding desegregation across district lines, and by requiring lower courts to give greater leeway to local authorities. In the third stage, which began in 1991, the high court has eased the way for schools to be released altogether from desegregation decrees. Nevertheless, over 500 school districts still operate to some extent under a federal desegregation decree.

Has it worked? The Department of Education reported recently that the share of black students attending “intensely segregated” schools (90 percent or higher minority) fell from 64 percent in 1968 to 34 percent in 1991. In the South, the share of black students attending majority-white schools went from .001 percent in 1954 to 39 percent in 1991. However, no national database has tracked racial balance in the schools over recent decades; reporting requirements are few and uneven.

W hat’s happened with mandatory busing? In the 1971 North Carolina case of Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education, the Supreme Court granted federal judges the authority to order districtwide busing to desegregate schools. Although public opposition has been great, no subsequent court ruling has ever invalidated mandatory busing. Hundreds of districts still operate mandatory busing programs. (Only one large city, Seattle, has ever voluntarily undertaken busing.) However, the Supreme Court signaled a possible shift in 1992 when it allowed a federally supervised Georgia school district to regain control over busing even before the district had fully desegregated.

The legal basis for court-ordered busing and other measures is that government officials have purposely acted to keep the schools segregated. As a practical matter, though, the main reason schools remain heavily segregated is that residential housing patterns are segregated. In 1990, the black populations in the 18 largest metro areas in the North were so concentrated that 78 percent would have had to move in order to achieve residential racial balance. In 1974, the court invalidated a desegregation plan that involved busing students between heavily black Detroit and its heavily white suburbs. There could be no remedies across district lines for racial imbalance within district lines, without proof that the lines themselves were drawn for racially discriminatory reasons. The case, Milliken vs. Bradley, was a turning point, for it deemed that voluntary “white flight” from urban centers was beyond the power of the courts to remedy.

S ince the mid-1970s, magnet schools– specialized or especially high-quality schools designed to draw students voluntarily from a wide geographical area–have been an increasingly popular way to desegregate school systems without resorting to mandatory busing. A recent ruling marks the limits of this method. Since 1977, the judge supervising the desegregation of the Kansas City, Mo., schools had ordered over $1.7 billion in expenditures for a system of magnet schools. Last June, in Missouri vs. Jenkins, the Supreme Court ruled that the judge had gone too far. He could not require the open-ended financing of magnet schools, and he could not use magnet schools to attract suburban whites to Kansas City schools, when the suburbs had done nothing unlawful. Does court-ordered desegregation ever end? At first, the Supreme Court said school authorities would be under federal supervision until they had discharged the “affirmative duty” to eliminate the “vestiges” of segregation, “root and branch.” That standard has changed dramatically. In 1991, the court held that once a school district has made a “good faith” effort and taken all “practicable” steps to end segregation, it should be released from its court order. In 1992, the court ruled that a federal judge’s jurisdiction can be terminated before the schools have achieved full compliance with a desegregation order. In both opinions, the court placed a premium on returning schools to local control.

A s the federal judiciary has backed off desegregation, plaintiffs increasingly have turned to state courts. Many state constitutions have provisions relating specifically to education. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled this summer in Sheff vs. O’Neill that the segregation of Hartford’s public schools violated the equitable education provisions of the state constitution. The ruling was significant for two reasons. First, the court found no intentional discrimination, but ruled that the district’s segregation was in itself unconstitutional. Second, the court declared that the cause of the segregation was the practice of basing district lines on municipal boundaries. Thus it undid, in Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court’s two major restraints on court-ordered desegregation. In recent years, attention has turned away from integration and toward the issue of inequalities in school financing. Most public schools are financed primarily by local property taxes. Even at the same or a lower tax rate, more affluent (largely white) districts can spend more per student than poorer (largely black) districts with a smaller tax base. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined opportunities to find this disparity unconstitutional, but several state supreme courts have taken it up.