It will not happen next week. It may not happen this year. But school officials, community leaders and many parents in Prince George's County agree it must happen, and soon: a major reexamination of the county's court-ordered school desegregation efforts.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week giving lower courts greater latitude in lifting desegregation orders from school districts has reenergized a decades-old debate in Prince George's, the only Washington area school system operating under such an order.
Although county officials say they have no plans to ask to be freed from the court decree, a growing concern that Prince George's may be reaching the limit of its ability to desegregate has prompted a search for fresh ways to provide equal opportunity in the schools.
"When you get to the point that the number of minority youngsters far outweighs the number of white youngsters, there aren't going to be enough white students in the system to desegregate in the traditional sense," said Bowie State University President James E. Lyons Sr., who chairs the citizens committee that monitors the county desegregation plan. "I think people recognize it is time to take a different look."
The last time the county formally revisited its desegregation plan was five years ago. At that point, the school board launched an ambitious magnet school program as a partial alternative to mandatory busing and agreed to place the vast majority of its children in schools that were 10 percent to 80 percent black.
Now school administrators say that demographic changes make it unlikely that they will be able to meet those numerical guidelines without a radical shift in their approach. Even then, some question whether the guidelines are attainable at all when the public school enrollment is expected to become 75 percent black within the next 10 years.
While the school board has yet to ask for a formal review of the issue, interviews with officials and community leaders expected to play key roles in shaping a new direction for the school system show that most agree on one key point: Desegregation, at least in its classical sense of bringing a certain proportion of black and white children to each school, should no longer be a primary goal in Prince George's.
"We must move beyond numbers to a new definition of equality," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University associate dean, who sits on a citizens committee that monitors the Prince George's desegregation plan.
Instead, many advocates are pushing for something called "educational equity." The concept embodies the idea that the school system should provide the resources -- be they smaller class sizes or multicultural education programs -- to ensure that all children have the tools they need to learn, regardless of whether they are in a school that is segregated.
School Superintendent John A. Murphy said a year ago that the magnet program -- designed in part to draw white students to predominantly black schools -- had been exhausted as a desegregation tool. He also champions using equity as an alternative to "mixing" students.
"We have to focus more on outcomes than on how the numbers look, whether our children are getting equal access to quality education," Murphy said.
The school system already has begun to do that as part of the 1985 court agreement by compensating predominantly black schools that are geographically difficult to desegregate with additional funding. The county now has 19 such schools.
According to County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a movement away from the numerical desegregation goals could free money now spent on busing and provide more money for basics such as textbooks and library materials. Glendening estimates that half of the $43 million that the county spends on busing could be saved if the racial goals were eliminated.
Several people said that the rise of the black middle class in Prince George's is at least partly responsible for the shift of opinion.
The new residents include professionals, many educated in segregated schools and at historically black colleges, "who resent the notion that their kids have to be sitting next to white children to get what they deserve," said Wayne Curry, a Prince George's lawyer who chairs a school committee on black male achievement.
"They are tired of chasing white kids all over this county, especially since their kids are now in the majority," Curry said.
Prince George's has operated a desegregation plan under a federal court's supervision since 1972, the year the NAACP filed a lawsuit on behalf of eight black youngsters.
At that time, the county's school population was nearly three-quarters white. Yet many black students were attending all-black schools. A massive mandatory busing program, involving about 33,000 white and black students, was created to address the problem.
Since then, the number of black children has grown to more than 65 percent of the school enrollment, while Asian students make up 4.1 percent, Hispanics, 3.6 percent, and Native Americans, 0.4 percent.
Five years ago, the NAACP returned to court, arguing that the busing plan had not succeeded in desegregating the schools. A new three-part plan involving the use of magnet schools, compensatory money for hard-to-integrate schools, and selective mandatory busing was adopted.
The limits to the desegregation plan are evident in the number of schools that fell outside the court's guidelines this year. In September 1984, just before the current goals were adopted, 33 schools of 171 were determined to be racially unbalanced. This year, 40 schools made the list and officials say the number is likely to go up next year.
Much of the criticism of the current system surrounds the 12,000 children who are still being bused involuntarily. Unlike their peers who travel long distances to attend one of the coveted magnet programs, these children attend schools outside their neighborhoods under boundary lines that were drawn 18 years ago to satisfy the original court suit.
Many black parents say that at least some of it is unnecessary because of demographic changes. They cite examples of students from predominantly black areas who are being bused to schools in other predominantly black areas, while children from largely white neighborhoods escape any busing at all.
One such concerned parent is Ralph Smith, a Capitol Heights lawyer and the PTA vice president at Avalon Elementary School in Fort Washington.
Each weekday morning, Smith's 6-year-old son, Darius, boards a school bus at the end of his street, and with another 75 Capitol Heights children travels about half an hour to Avalon.
Before the Capitol Heights children began attending Avalon in 1973 as part of the court-ordered desegregation plan, the school was 97 percent white.
Today, more than 70 percent of Avalon's students are black, a situation that leaves parents such as Smith wondering why their children must still pass by as many as seven closer elementary schools to get to classes.
"I'm all for integration of the races, but I think involuntary busing is unfair," Smith said. "It's very awkward. If we lived one block up, he would be attending another school."
Last month, after receiving scores of similar complaints, the county school board asked for a study of the system's busing patterns. Ideally, board members say, the study would eventually return some students to their neighborhood schools.
Board member Marcy Canavan said many residents of Prince George's have been urging the school board for years to ask U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman to dissolve the 19-year-old decree. Being freed from the court order would not only save the school system money in legal fees, but would "lift a tremendous psychological weight" from the district, Canavan said.
But Lyons and Curry said they would hesitate to endorse either amending or ending the court decree unless a firm alternative plan for promoting equity is adopted. They note that the court order is the primary leverage that minority residents have to ensure that their concerns get a response.
Such an alternative plan is likely to include provisions for hiring and promoting more minority school professionals and expanding the number of hard-to-segregate schools eligible for extra money, Curry said.
It is also likely to require a significant infusion of funds, at least $125 million, according to Curry's committee.
When both the state and county are posting large deficits, finding more money is likely to prove extraordinarily difficult anytime soon.
"We have been 18 years in this right now, and if it takes another year to do it right, particularly with additional community input, that is something I'm willing to give," Glendening said.
Last week, officers from the Prince George's branch of the NAACP also said they are not eager to head back to court.
Cora Rice, the local group's president, said she thinks the school system has not demonstrated enough of a commitment to making the current plan work to justify abandoning its desegregation efforts.
Rice said any renewed discussions of desegregation in the county should include mandatory busing of white children as an option.
"It's fair. Black children have been doing it since 1972. Now the numbers have changed. Just flip," Rice said.