Judge Ends Busing in Prince George's
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 1998; Page A01
A federal judge in Greenbelt yesterday ordered the end to mandatory busing in Prince George's County, concluding a 26-year-old government effort to desegregate the schools and closing one of the most divisive chapters in the county's history.
During the next six years, busing will be phased out as the county begins building 13 neighborhood schools and refurbishing older ones. Under a settlement to end busing, the school system also will focus on boosting the academic achievement of all students and closing the achievement gap between African American students and their peers.
In his 37-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte approved the agreement reached in March by representatives of the school system, county government and NAACP, the parties in the lawsuit filed in 1972 that prompted the only federal school desegregation order in the Washington area.
Messitte called the agreement "a fitting denouement to one of the most serious dramas of modern America."
His ruling will change little for county students this school year. But next year, students will begin going to neighborhood schools as attendance boundaries are redrawn and facilities are built, though parents will have the option of allowing their children to stay in their current schools.
At the height of the Prince George's desegregation effort, 33,277 children were reassigned to schools to achieve racial balance, and the burden of busing fell evenly among white and black students. But by 1996, nearly 92 percent of the 11,332 students mandatorily bused were African American, many of them sent to predominantly black schools outside their neighborhoods.
School board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) said parents and the community must remain vigilant to assure that the terms of the agreement are kept.
"It really is up to the board and other fiscal authorities, as well as parents and the larger community, to take full advantage of the opportunities created by today's decision," he said.
As part of the agreement, school officials must develop extensive academic progress reports, with performance data broken down by school, race and poverty levels.
If the neighborhood schools are built on schedule and the government maintains its commitment to county schools, Messitte said, he will close the suit completely in 2002.
Although the judge's decision effectively eliminates integration as the panacea for a quality education for African American students, officials say improvements will take time.
"They're telling me they're going to have improvements, but are they?" asked Minerva Sanders, president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs. "The key to this is that the quality of education has to be raised, so parents will be comforted in knowing their children will get the education they need."
School officials said they won't abandon their attempts to make classrooms more racially diverse as they search for proven ways to boost the academic achievement of students at all schools.
State and county leaders hailed the judge's decision as an opportunity for the state's largest school system to move ahead.
"This is good news," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "The debate and emotion surrounding the busing debate were detracting from the main purpose of the schools -- educating students."
Commitments from the county and state to finance the school construction projects made the lawsuit settlement possible. The Maryland General Assembly earlier this year agreed to provide $35 million a year over the next four years for new school construction.
"It's a tremendous step forward for Prince George's County and the entire state of Maryland to get that ugly chapter in our history behind us," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said.
The three litigants began negotiating toward a settlement after a trial on the desegregation lawsuit ended in December.
The litigants resolved their differences with a settlement that will end court-ordered busing while the schools work to improve academic instruction. And the school system no longer has to submit regular reports to Messitte on the racial makeup of its schools and teaching staff.
If by 2002 the three parties agree that the terms of the settlement have been met, Messitte automatically will lift the order and declare the school system "unitary," meaning there are no vestiges of the old, separate system that provided unequal educations for black and white children.
"I just think that's a good resolution," said Patricia Brannan, a lawyer who has represented the NAACP in the case since the mid-1980s. "It think it's taken a lot of effort to get there, but it was well worth it."
Nathaniel Thomas, 17, a Suitland High School student and president of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, said returning students to neighborhood schools will spark more parent involvement.
"I think it's good because it's building the whole concept of communities committed to children," Thomas said. "When a large portion of the school student body doesn't live in the community, it means less participation in the community."
Now, he said, the system can get down to the business of "opportunities and programs and getting the students ready for high school improvement tests."
Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, Desson Howe and Daniel LeDuc contributed to this report.
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