The U.S. Department of Education yesterday urged the Justice Department not to appeal a controversial court order that threatens to cut off federal education aid to Virginia and other states next year if they fail to show progress on efforts to desegregate public colleges.
An education department spokeswoman refused to elaborate on the recommendation made yesterday by Secretary Terrell H. Bell. That recommendation is under review at the U.S. Department of Justice where Solicitor General Rex E. Lee will make a final decision on an appeal "soon," a spokesman said.
The Justice Department filed a notice in federal court Friday, saying it would appeal the March ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Pratt in Washington. But a spokesman yesterday said the notice was a legal formality--submitted on the eve of the court's 60-day deadline--to allow the administration to keep its options open.
Pratt's order requires Virginia--and five other states--to show "substantial progress" in its latest college desegregation plan by next year, or face the prospect of losing more than $100 million in federal aid to higher education.
Brad Marman, at the Justice Department, said he could not discuss the issues involved in the decision whether to appeal Pratt's order. "We are in a position where we cannot and will not comment. We cannot confirm or deny what the Department of Education has said but we will take into account whatever is recommended," Marman said.
The administration's indecision has confounded attorneys for the Legal Defense Fund, a civil rights group that originally sought the order from Pratt to spur on states which, the defense fund said, lagged behind on college desegregation efforts.
"Ordinarily, a decision to appeal is made when the notice is filed," said Elliott Lichtman, attorney for the Legal Defense Fund. "Ordinarily, you don't play these kinds of games."
If the administration decides to appeal Pratt's order, it could take months before a higher court rules in the case. In the meantime, the deadlines set by Pratt would stand, Lichtman noted yesterday.
"The order is valid until it is reversed," he said. "I would expect that the government would comply with it until it should happen that an appeal is filed and until it should happen that a reversal is obtained."
Pratt issued his order in a decade-old case brought against the federal government by the Legal Defense Fund for failure to enforce civil rights law on public college campuses, specificially in states such as Virginia, which for decades had maintained a segregated system of higher education.
The order, hailed by the Legal Defense Fund as a necessary enforcement tool, has been lamented by Virginia officials, who argue that it fails to define "substantial progress." The officials also have complained that Pratt's deadlines conflict with a three-year desegregation plan recently negotiated with the education department's Office of Civil Rights.
Virginia submitted its new college desegregation plan last year after federal officials ruled that a 1978 plan had failed to meet its goals. The new plan is aimed at increasing black enrollment at traditionally white colleges and at improving education at Virginia's two traditionally black public colleges.
Testifying at a congressional hearing last week, Virginia Education Secretary John Casteen expressed guarded optimism at meeting the terms of Pratt's order. He said success would depend on the "tremendous efforts" being made by college admissions offices.