Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said yesterday that he favors desegregating schools in major metropolitan areas by breaking up large school districts and redrawing school boundary lines so they would mix inner-city and suburban students.
"What we have in most big urban centers is a huge ring, a circle that surrounds the city, which is heavily minority, while on the outside, in the surburbs, live the affluent majority," he said. "I'd just like to see some of these big, oversized inner-city school systems broken up and merged with the suburbs."
Bell, who emphasized that he was stating personal views and not announcing any shift in Reagan administration policy, said state legislatures could redraw school boundaries if they are willing to take the political heat.
"School districts are creatures of state legislatures," Bell said. "Some people seem to think that they the boundaries must coincide with city or county boundaries, but they don't."
Bell said he was specifically thinking about the Detroit public school system where a judge ordered desegregation by bringing suburban students across city boundaries into city schools.
That was struck down in 1974 when the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5 to 4, said that remedy could not be used because the problem of increasingly all-black city schools was not the responsibility of the suburbs. The high court said federal courts may not reach out and include an outlying district in a city desegregration plan.
"There's no reason why the school districts up there have to coincide with the city lines or even the county lines," Bell said of the Detroit system. "They could establish better school districts that would give a better mix all the way around."
David S. Tatel, who directed the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter administration, praised Bell's comments.
"Metropolitan school district plans are the most rational way to accomplish stable desegregation. Where they have been tried they have been generally stable, with less white flight than city-only desegregation plans," he said.
Bell also said he believes local zoning boards contribute to school segregation. "Much of the segregated schools in this country are the product of city and county zoning boards which establish economic segregation by requiring that certain types of homes be built in certain areas," he said.
"A lot of the desegregation burden has been placed on schools when other government entities should be doing their share."
Bell first raised the idea during an interview Friday with the Associated Press in Little Rock, Ark., where President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard 25 years ago this month to aid in desegregating the local high school.
Bell also told the AP that he supports tuition tax credits for parents of students attending private schools that do not discriminate -- a plan supported by the administration.
Bell said they should be limited "to mean not more than half of the cost or limited to $500 dollars as an outside limit."