The turbaned wonder puts the sealed envelope against the side of his head, ponders briefly, then intones: "The answer is: busing."
Unlike Johnny Carson's "Carnack the Magnificent," however, there is no need to open the envelope to see what the question was. When it comes to race and public education, the answer is always: busing.
Take some of the questions now confronting the public schools of Prince George's County. How do you persuade U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman that the county no longer runs a dual school system? What is the proper response to the fact that, as the county moves from a white majority to a black one, more and more schools become predominantly black? How do you ensure that black children, who desperately need a better education, get it? What do you do about the fact that 39 percent of Prince George's students fail to attain a C average, and that 70 percent of these are black? How do you keep changing residential patterns from reflecting themselves in changing school enrollments?
The answer is: busing.
It's an answer James F. Garrett has grown tired of. Garrett has enlisted a number of Prince George's parents to join him in a Black Coalition Against Unnecessary Busing.
Garrett, like Brenda Hughes, a coalition member who was with him during a recent interview, is a staunch integrationist. Both are professionals (he's an engineer with the Navy Department, she an accountant and budget analyst). Both are PTA presidents who live in integrated neighborhoods and whose children are bused to integrated (though increasingly black) public schools.
But both are convinced that the plan drawn up by Robert Green, president of the University of the Distric of Columbia, at the request of Judge Kaufman, is almost monomaniacally concerned with the maximum feasible mixing of races, with educational considerations a distant second.
Hughes's son, for instance, attends Concord Elementary School in Forestville, which she said recently racked up the highest scores in the county on the California Test of Basic Skills. The reason, she says, is that Concord, like the Walker Mill Middle School her daughter attends, has an extraordinary principal (both are black PhDs) and an integrated staff who have engendered "a complete academic turnaround since they've been there." But Concord, more than 85 percent black, would be closed under the Green plan, and the children would be bused beyond the Capital Beltway to Goddard Elementary School in Seabrook -- all in the name of integration.
"The plan doesn't even guarantee integrated classrooms at the end of the bus ride," says Garrett. "It only integrates schools. And the majority of the burden is on black pupils and black neighborhoods. What you have is predominantly black schools in a ring adjacent to the District of Columbia and predominantly white schools beyond the Beltway. Those in between are well integrated. So what Green proposes is to bus children from near the District to beyond the Beltway and vice versa. That basically means closing the black schools, since the whites have demonstrated that they won't send their children to the black schools."
The busing patterns established in 1971, under Kaufman's original order, made sense, according to Garrett and Hughes, because at that time blacks constituted only about 20 percent of the county's enrollment, and the system was run almost entirely by whites. Now that the black enrollment is well above 50 percent and climbing, and the number of black administrators and supervisors is growing, it's time to deemphasize racial mixing and concentrate on educational improvement, they say.
"Most of the problems facing the schools have very little to do with race and a good deal more to do with socioeconomics," says Garrett. "It would make more sense to me to examine those schools in economically depressed areas and make a plan to improve them -- by halving the student-teacher ratios, by adding special courses or doing whatever is necessary. The sole goal of the Green recommendation is racial integration. He even wants an annual review to redraw busing patterns as residential patterns change. It doesn't make sense."
Garrett and Hughes believe most blacks in the county share their view but are reluctant to come forward because a handful of racists also oppose increased busing.
"Isn't it time for us to take a stand for what is best educationally for our children and not worry if our objectives happen to coincide with the interests of a few racists?" Garrett asks.
It's a good question. But Garrett won't be surprised if the answer, once again, is: busing.