A quarter-century has passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered American schools to desegregate, but nearly half the country's minority children still attend segregated institutions, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said yesterday.
Observing the 25th anniversary of the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka decision, criticized Congress for passing legislation to weaken enforcement efforts and the executive branch for failing to put its full weight behind desegregation.
"We should be further down the road than we are at this time," said commission Chairman Arthur S. Flemming. It would, he said, be "indefensible" for integration to proceed no faster in the future than it has to date.
The commission called upon Congress, the White House, the departments of Justice and of Health, Education and Welfare to beef up their enforcement efforts, the resources they devote to desegregation and the attention they give to it.
Citizens, said Fleming, should organize to get rid of the Eagleton Biden amendment, 1977 legislation sponsored by Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) that forbids HEW from cutting off funds to districts that refuse to comply with busing requirements. "This is one of, if not the, major civil rights issues confronting the country at this time," Flemming said.
The commission, which has no power to enforce desegregation but is charged with monitoring its progress, made its observations from HEW's 1976 study of 3,616 out of the nation's 16,000 school districts. In some, including Fairfax County, Va., "equality of education is taking on real meaning" and progress has been achieved, the report said. Denver, Tampa, Tacoma, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., were singled out for praise.
Other school districts "have employed a variety of devices to prevent, obstruct or slow down desegregation," including Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and New Castle County, Del., the commission said. It cited East Baton Rouge Parish, La., and Pittsburgh, Pa., as its worst cases, saying "obstructonist tactics" there have managed to block any meaningful desegregation.
"Congress has aided and abetted the obstructionists... by attempting to make it increasingly difficult to enforce desegregation policies," the report said. "The executive branch has yet to mount the kind of all-out enforcement effort that will make clear that the nation is firmly committed to integration.
In 1976, 46 percent of all minority students, or 4.9 million of them, attended "moderately or highly" segregated schools, according to commission figures.
Segregation rates are "considerably higher in the northeast (65 percent) and north central regions (68 percent) than elsewhere, but even in the region with the lowest average level, the southeast (with 34 percent), the level of segregation is noticeable," the commission said.
It noted "an extremely high rate of findings of noncompliance" with mandates for bilingual education, observing that such programs are still "the critical component" for educational equity for Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Island Americans, American Indians and Alaskan natives.
Flemming said the commission agreed that integration of suburban communities with inner-city school districts, commonly called metropolitan desegregation, will be "absolutely essential... to achieve the goals." He discounted arguments that such a procedure would be a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare."Sound, practical plans" for it could be worked out for any metropolitan area, including New York City, he said.
Desegregaton, the commission argued, cannot take all the blame for the flight of white families from cities to the suburbs. "I prefer to call it 'middle class flight,'" said commission Vice Chairman Stephen Horn. The middle class follows industry and jobs to the suburbs, escaping a rising inner-city tax rate and deteriorating downtowns as much as integration, he said.
Similarly, only 3 to 4 percent of all busing is for desegregation, Flemming noted. "If it is clear that the only way to break up a segregated school system is by reassigning students, then it is only fair you should provide transport for them," he said.
The commission praised President Carter's commitment to desegregation, as spelled out in "one of the finest sections on civil rights that has appeared in the State of the Union address since 1964," in Flemming's words. But the restrictions placed around HEW have meant that of six districts where fund cutoffs were pending when Carter took office only one case has been settled, the report noted.
"The commission believes that present sanctions should be enforced," the study said. "If they are not, it means that school districts can deny today's schoolchildren and young people their constitutional rights without being held accountable in any meaningful manner."
The report took a closer look at 43 districts where the desegregation process was for some reason of national interest, unique or critical to the region.
In Chicago, "the issue of school desegregation remains a critical one," the report found. The city is highest in its region in numbers of minority students suspended or expelled; it has been declared ineligible for some related funding five times, and suits and countersuits continue to be filed, the report said.
Denver, on the other hand, promoted desegregation partly through expanded attendance zones and finds student and parent acceptance of integration is "noticeably greater" than in previous years the commission said, adding that the city has "broadened and enriched the educational experiences available to all students."