The concept of compensatory education is based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the practice of one-race schools if increased resources are devoted to their pupils.

Conflicts similar to the one in Prince George's County have been repeated in other urban areas where compensatory school programs were implemented to lessen the impact of busing. Part of the problem is that the 1977 Supreme Court ruling called Milliken v. Bradley (II) left individual school districts and their communities to negotiate the level and kind of compensation.

"We really have no clear standards," according to University of Chicago school desegregation specialist Gary Orfield.

Some of the concerns center on whether the special resources due compensatory schools, also called Milliken schools, should be given in addition to existing resources, or whether they can be used to replace similar programs and resources already at the schools.

Civil rights experts, mindful that insufficient funds has often been presented as cause for not meeting civil rights obligations, also question to what degree a school system's financial limitations should be considered.

National experts say a pattern has been repeated in places such as Kansas City and St. Louis, where school districts have tried to make adjustments to desegregation plans because of financial problems.

"You tend to get school systems to agree to all of these things. Once they get past that court order they think they have grounds to renege," said Orfield.

Nationally, many legal and civil rights experts agree that the programs should be in addition to the schools' "core program."

But where that line is drawn is often fuzzy at best, involving a range of educational realities that can differ from school to school within a community.

Yale University law Professor Paul Gewirtz said that while the schools must satisfy the terms of a desegregation plan, there may be cases where it is within legal bounds to do so by "taking from other activities that aren't part of the legal agreement."

Orfield is more adamant that the new resources should supplement existing programs. "Obviously, those parents didn't agree to be funded out of one pot instead of another."

Columbia University associate professor of law James Liebman said an important point of the Supreme Court's Milliken ruling places some of the financial responsibility on state governments.

"You can't let the ability-to-pay factor force the local school district to choose between providing its regular education program or providing the remedial services that the constitution requires," he said. "If it ever came to a conflict, the state would have to up the ante."

In any case, most national experts seem to agree that meeting the constitutional remedies of deliberate segregation is the priority.

"One's constitutional rights should not be dependent on the ability to pay," said Howard University political science Professor Alvin Thornton. He also heads a group monitoring the Prince George's desegregation plan.

But Orfield raises a question that has overshadowed the county's desegregation plan from the beginning.

"Once you go to a separate but equal system, you run up against the problems you had before," he said. "How do you have equality when you don't have equal political power?"