Virginia's top education official today sharply criticized federal civil rights officials for an "intrusive and domineering" role that he said might threaten resolution of the state's decade-long attempt to desegregate its colleges and universities.
State Education Secretary John Casteen, speaking to a group of legislators, said the state may be forced to go to court next year to defend its most recent college desegration plan, negotiated in January with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights.
Virginia is one of a number of states under a 1969 federal court suit to eliminate the last vestiges of its once-segregated system of higher education. After several years of resistance, Virginia adopted a desegregation plan in 1978, a plan that last year was rejected by federal officials.
A new three-year plan, expected to cost $16 million, was tentatively approved in January but Casteen said today recent developments have cast that plan in doubt. He laid the blame for the uncertainties on the Office of Civil Rights, which he described as "irresponsible" and "an unstable partner in negotiations."
On March 24, U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt warned Virginia and other states that they could face a cutoff of federal funds next year if they are unable to show that they have "substantial progress" in achieving desegration by March.
Casteen charged today that the Office of Civil Rights had provided Pratt with the timetable for compliance which he said could undermine the agreement negotiated two months earlier with Virginia. Pratt said the state had to submit data in February showing that it is meeting its first-year goals.
The timetable, said Casteen, may prove impossible for colleges and universities that will have had less than a year to increase minority enrollment.
Gov. Charles S. Robb, the fourth governor to deal with the college desegregation issue, said he shared Casteen's concerns. "It is obviously very, very difficult to bring about measurable change between now and the time we are going to be evaluated for our good faith effort," he said.