The folks in Prince Edward County, Virginia didn't like the idea of school desegregation 25 years ago. There was a general failure of enthusiasm in the south in those days, but few officeholders went as far as those in Prince Edward County who demonstrated their "massive resistance" to integration by closing down the public schools entirely. They chose ignorance over integration. Some children, however, were able to continue their education during the years without public schools because a private, whites-only academy was established to serve those who could afford to enroll. Black children were never accepted at the academy under any circumstances.

Because of its insistence on a segregated student body, Prince Edward Academy did not qualify as a tax-exempt institution, a status that is a great benefit to those who depend on charitable contributions. Recently though, the academy announced a change of policy, advertising its intention to admit students without regard to race. This simple paper declaration, you may be surprised to learn, is all the IRS requires as evidence of nondiscrimination, so the academy's tax exempt status has been restored.

This is not some Reagan administration dirty trick but a policy of long standing that has been the subject of litigation for many years. Civil rights groups want the IRS to adopt much stricter standards, particularly in the case of schools such as the Prince Edward Academy, which were specifically founded to avoid integration and which, to this day, still do not have a single black student.

They are right, of course. But because the Supreme Court has ruled that individual taxpayers have no legal standing to challenge another taxpayer's exempt status, the courts cannot be used to force this result. Earlier, before the standing case was decided, a federal court issued an order that still applies in the state of Mississippi requiring more concrete evidence of a school's nondiscrimination. Are there any black students currently enrolled? Have scholarships been offered to encourage black applicants? Have minority teachers been hired? Is there continuing and good communication between the school and the local black community?

The IRS regulations are not designed to punish schools indefinitely but to provide an incentive to change. Even those institutions founded as "segregation academies" should have an opportunity to demonstrate that they no longer discriminate and therefore deserve this valuable tax status. But paper compliance is not enough. The Prince Edward Academy, because of its deplorable genesis, should be held to a higher standard than a simple declaration of intent. The tests used in Mississippi should be applied by the IRS, not only in this case, but nationwide.