The NAACP, unhappy with the results of nearly a decade of court-ordered busing in Prince George's County, has asked the court to reopen the original case.
The civil rights organization's contention will be that the county has not done all it could to maximize racial integration in the public schools. It obviously has not, though officials no doubt will contend they have done all the law required them to do in that regard. They drew up bus routes and pupil-assignment plans that, at least at the beginning, had the effect of ending official segregation.
A couple of things have happened since the plan was implemented in 1972. First, a large number of whites have left the public schools while a large number of black families have moved into the county, most of them in areas near the District of Columbia. Second, housing patterns in 1981 are not what they were in 1972. Whites have been moving farther out into the county, in many cases selling their homes to black newcomers.
The school system that was 13 percent black a decade ago is some 40 percent black today. One result of all this is that the busing patterns that enhanced integration when they were established now often involve the absurd phenomenon of black children traveling great distances from their neighborhood only to wind up in schools that are overwhelmingly black.
It may be fair to ask whether the county has done as much as possible to maximize racial integration. Clearly, it hasn't. But the suspicion here is that that is the wrong question. The relevant inquiry is whether anyone--including the NAACP--has done as much as possible to improve the education of black children.
There are other questions, but this one is key. For instance, the NAACP has questions regarding possible discrimination in hiring and assigning black teachers. In my opinion, that is a proper issue for the teachers themselves, but it has little to do with the question of educating black children, or of busing, for that matter. Indeed, if black teachers are being assigned disproportionately to black schools, that ought to enhance the education of black children--unless it is assumed that black teachers are either less qualified than whites or less concerned about the education of black children.
There is the question of whether school-closing decisions have been made in a way calculated to reduce the amount of racial integration, a charge which, if true, might prove to be the most effective lever for reopening the busing case.
There is the question of discrimination against black children, even when they attend integrated schools. The NAACP points out, for instance, that black children make up 67 percent of the "educable mentally retarded" and 61 percent of the children identified as having "specific learning disabilities." Black students, says NAACP general counsel Thomas I. Atkins, "are being disciplined for things that would be disregarded or given less discipline for whites." So why does Atkins work so feverishly to expose more black children to such disparate treatment?
There may even be a question of the equitable distribution of resources-- the question that resulted in the busing order in the first place. But if that remains a problem, it strikes me that it can be resolved far more easily than by transferring pupils.
The NAACP's single-minded insistence on racial integration resolves none of these questions, and in some cases --the matter of school discipline, for instance--aggravates them. So why the continuing fervor for busing?
The reason, I suspect, is that the NAACP, seeing clearly the importance of better education for black children, is trying to achieve it with the only tool it has at hand: litigation. Litigation works reasonably well in terms of statistical equity. It doesn't work worth a damn for the education of specific black children.
The NAACP thinks it is committed to improving education for black children. What it is really committed to is a specific method--busing--for achieving that end. And it would rather fight its quixotic court battles than switch to a different approach.
I would not argue for a return to the days of separate-but-equal, when black children were transported great distances to keep them from sitting next to white children. But neither would I argue for hauling black children needless miles to keep them from sitting next to other black children. Color isn't the problem; education is.
If the NAACP and its supporters had spent as much of their resources, financial and otherwise, improving the education of black children as has been spent trying to get them into predominantly white schools, the problem would have been solved long ago.