Hearing its most important school-desegregation case in more than a decade, the Supreme Court was presented last week with two unappealing prospects: court-ordered busing in perpetuity or (de facto) resegregation.
The Court can and should avoid both alternatives.
The immediate issue in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell is whether the school board acted lawfully in 1985 when it ended, for students from the first grade through the fourth grade, the cross-town busing that a federal judge had ordered in 1972 as a remedy for decades of official school segregation.
The larger issue is whether the court ordered desegregation measures that bind hundreds of cities all over the country can ever be discontinued if the result would be neighborhood schools that reflect racial imbalances.
While the oral arguments at the Court on Oct. 2 focused on legalisms like the definition of a "unitary" school system and such mysteries of causation as whether today’s segregated housing patterns are a vestige of official segregation, the larger questions at stake remained in the background.
Does the educational and social value of integration to blacks and whites alike outweigh the strain on small children who are bused to schools in alien surroundings far from their homes? Does it outweigh the problems caused by white flight, which has left many big cities with racially isolated majorities of black and Hispanic students, while sapping public support for the schools?
How much of the white flight was in fact caused by forced busing? Are whites who flee busing racist or irrational, or do some have reason to worry that their children’s education will suffer?
Do black children really learn better when put together with whites, as some experts assert and others deny? Or would they do better if efforts were focused on improving their neighborhood schools or if they were allowed to choose between competing schools? Would segregation both by race and by sex be best for troubled black boys who lack male role models at home, as some black educators and others have suggested?
Will city governments always short change schools populated by disadvantaged blacks?
These questions went unmentioned in the arguments, because they are not questions of law. Questions of law, however, produce answers that are not particularly useful or satisfactory in this context. Julius Chambers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., representing some black Oklahoma City children, acknowledged that the logic of his position would require forced busing to continue for 100 years or more-unless complete residential integration comes sooner, which seems unlikely given the downward trajectory of the urban poor.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asked the lawyer whether Oklahoma City’s 1972 busing order "would have to remain in effect into future centuries" as long as neighborhoods remain racially distinct.
"It must remain in force until all vestiges have been eliminated which would cause resegregation," responded Chambers who also stressed that racially identifiable neighborhoods are among the "vestiges" of official school segregation.
"So your answer is yes," O’Connor said.
From the other side, Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, supporting Oklahoma City with qualifications, suggested that once a city has complied with a mandatory busing decree for a period of years and has completely purged its schools of the vestiges of discrimination, it should be free to institute neighborhood schools-even if many will be all-black.
The bottom line, growled Justice Thurgood Marshall, is that "the poor Afro-American kid is in the same school … and it’s still a segregated school."
Starr demurred at this use of the word segregated, as did Justice Antonin Scalia. They stressed that racially identifiable neighborhood schools are not the same as state-imposed segregation: The city canno control where people choose to live, and the persistence and expansion of black ghettos at this point in history cannot be blamed on past school segregation.
But these points rang hollow to Mar shall. He argued for the black plaintiffs it Brown v. Board of Education in 1953 when Starr was seven years old. Now Marshall exudes the heartache of an 82-year-old man whose lifelong cause is in eclipse.
Was it all for this? his look seemed to say. Did we fight so many battles only to see the same schools that were all-black before the Brown decision become virtually all-black again-only to trade de jure segregation for "separate but equal" neighborhood schools?
The neighborhood schools now attended by 40 percent of Oklahoma City’s black elementary students look quite separate-almost 100-percent black-and less than equal.
School officials have numbers showing that they spend as much-more, in fact- per student on the black schools as on the mostly white schools. But there are complaints of shortages of books and other teaching materials in the black schools, and some white schools look better equipped to visitors.
One explanation is that the white schools benefit greatly from middle-class parents who press for improvements and volunteer their own time and money. A principal reason for the 1985 move to neighborhood elementary schools was the hope of more parental involvement; the plan has been a success in that regard, but mainly in the white schools.
On the other hand, it is far from clear that Marshall’s preference for busing to achieve racial balance is shared by many black parents in Oklahoma City. Few actively supported the busing plan, and many had complained about their children’s long bus rides. And few have exercised the option under current school-board policy to sign up for voluntary busing to majority-white, schools.
The truth, unvarnished by Justice Marshall’s despondency, Julius Chambers’ dogged persistence, and Solicitor General Starr’s soothing ambiguities, is that the Supreme Court has little basis, other than intuition, for answering the policy questions underlying the busing dispute. Social scientists and other experts cannot agree on the answers. Local variations abound, with busing apparently having disastrous consequences in cities like Boston and some success in places like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.
A growing consensus does exist, however, that parental involvement is a key to successful schools and is more prevalent in neighborhood schools.
And a growing body of experience suggests it is self-defeating in the long run to keep ramming busing down the throats of communities that, after years of experience, still don’t want it. Racial balance is the best and most measurable in dicium of equal educational opportunity in the short run. But in the long run, pursuit of such balance at all costs can wreck school systems.
In Oklahoma City, the school population plunged from 69,000 the year before busing started to 38,000 today, with the proportion of black students rising from 25 percent to 40 percent-in a city that is 15-percent black.
All this argues, contrary to the views of Julius Chambers and most civil-rights groups, for giving school districts that want to drop mandatory busing plans after years of faithful compliance some latitude to experiment with neighborhood schools, even if racial imbalances will thereby increase.
But contrary to Oklahoma City and Solicitor General Starr, the Court should not simply end judicial supervision of such school districts, at least not when neighborhood schools will be racially identifiable. Desegregation injunctions should not be dissolved, but modified to allow school districts to try alternatives to mandatory busing.
At the same time, such school districts should be required to seek as much voluntary racial integration as possible through incentives like magnet schools, open enrollment, and voluntary transfer options. Oklahoma City has done too little in this regard.
In addition, black parents who say their neighborhood schools are not providing equal educational opportunities-a grave risk, in light of our history of neglecting black schools-should not be put to the burden of suing anew and proving intentional discrimination.
The Court should tell district judges to retain jurisdiction in such cases and keep up the pressure to avoid reversion to separate and unequal schools-with the threat of resuming forced busing if all else fails.