A federal appeals court ruling upholding a plan to end busing of elementary pupils in Norfolk opens the door for hundreds of school districts across the country to seek release from busing plans and other desegregation remedies, plaintiffs in the Norfolk case said yesterday.
The long-awaited opinion, which was released yesterday by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Norfolk, "has broad implications for school desegregation law" and could reverse 30 years of progress in school integration, according to Julius Chambers, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Chambers argued the case before the appeals panel a year ago.
The Norfolk case, which drew national attention when the Justice Department intervened on the side of the Norfolk School Board, also was watched carefully because, although it is binding only in the 4th Circuit, it could set a precedent in other jurisdictions.
The decision, announced Thursday, was hailed by Norfolk school officials as the go-ahead to implement the "neighborhood schools" plan they say will stem "white flight" from their majority-black school system.
"I'm very glad to see the decision come down as it did," said Hortense Wells, a black member of the School Board.
"I don't feel it should have any bad ramifications."
Henry L. Marsh III, a former Richmond mayor and attorney for the group of parents who opposed the School Board, disagreed.
"If this is not reversed, millions of black children will be going to segregated schools," said Marsh.
Plaintiffs said they will appeal the decision either to the Supreme Court or the full appeals court. Also, an injunction will be sought against the school system to prevent implementation of the neighborhood schools program, Marsh said.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said yesterday that the ruling was "a breath of fresh air" in efforts to achieve "meaningful" desegregation.
The neighborhood schools plan, devised by the School Board three years ago, would create 35 neighborhood elementary schools, 10 of them with virtually all-black enrollments. Cross-town busing for students in grades 7 through 12 would continue. While School Board members said they had not yet discussed the ruling, they could act to implement the plan for the upcoming school year.
Plaintiffs and some desegregation experts said the opinion and the participation of the Justice Department may encourage numerous school districts to go back to court in an effort to have their systems declared "unitary," or without vestiges of past discrimination, allowing them to abandon desegregation efforts.
In Maryland's Prince George's County, which has been under a desegregation court order for 13 years, Board of Education member Angelo Castelli said that, in light of the Norfolk decision, "the board is going to have to reassess its position" and decide whether to petition the federal court and ask that the county be released from court jurisdiction.
Board Chairman Paul Shelby disagreed. "I don't think the majority of the board wants to get involved in litigation again," he said.
The ruling was narrower than many expected in answering the issue of how long a school system is bound by a court order to desegregate.
"Our holding is a limited one," the opinion reads, "applicable only to those school systems which have succeeded in eradicating all vestiges of de jure [under law] segregation. In those systems the school boards and not the federal courts will run the schools, absent a showing of an intent to discriminate."
The decision continues: "The School Board of Norfolk has done a reasonable job in seeking to keep its schools integrated in the face of a massive exodus of white students."
Noted desegregation lawyer David Tatel, former head of the Office of Civil Rights in the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare, said the Norfolk ruling will be important "if it provides an incentive for lots of school systems to seek unitary status. On the other hand, if school systems are content with their desegregation plans, it will be of little importance."
Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, who argued to the appeals panel that the case represented a major turning point in the history of school desegregation, praised the ruling yesterday.
"It is time in Norfolk -- as in many other school districts around the country that have sustained for years good-faith compliance with court-ordered desegregation plans -- to restore to the local authorities full responsibility for running their public schools."
Chambers said that the participation of the Justice Department on behalf of the Norfolk School Board "stands as the starkest proof possible of the real intention of the Reagan administration with respect to school desegregation: namely, to reverse 30 years of painstakingly built progress."
Reaction to the ruling from local and state officials was mixed.
"I'm unhappy with the decision," said Lucy Wilson, a black School Board member who opposed the plan to end busing. "For most blacks, the decision is just as distressing as the 1960s decisions to implement busing was distressing to whites."
But she said the school system will move ahead with the proposal. "The courts have spoken," she said.
"I see the plan threatening the unity of the city," said Del. William P. (Billy) Robinson Jr. (D-Norfolk). He said the plan "presents the specter of having attitude development at an early age when [the schools] are essentially segregated."
Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, the highest black elected state official in the country, said the busing case was undermined by the sharp split in the black community over whether to continue busing. Many black families found busing a hardship on them and their children, Wilder said.
The ruling rejected arguments from plaintiffs that the School Board's plan was based on race. "The board assigned students to schools under the new plan solely on the basis of their residence," it said.
Also, the appeals panel wrote that the School Board could legitimately consider the problem of white flight in designing a plan to stabilize school integration. The school system, according to the opinion, lost between 6,000 and 8,000 white students because of its busing plan.
U.S. District Court Judge John A. MacKenzie, who ordered the busing plan in 1971, ruled in 1975 that Norfolk was free of its "dual," or segregated, system.