Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds said yesterday that more than 150 school districts may be eligible to sue to end court-ordered desegregation plans because of a recent federal court ruling, but he said the administration will not use that decision to launch a campaign against busing.
Reynolds, the Justice Department's top civil rights official, praised the ruling, made earlier this month by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in in Richmond, which upheld an end to busing elementary pupils in Norfolk. But he said "there are no surprises" in it, and described it as no more than an outline of procedures a school system must follow to free itself from court desegregation decrees.
Sitting under a portrait of abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a Justice Department conference room, Reynolds said there already is "a general recognition among all groups that the cross-town busing plan has worked less than perfectly." He said that pressure is growing to "take this yoke off and move to something that will begin to treat what are some very serious woes in the public education system."
"Norfolk will simply add more force to that existing momentum," he said. Courts increasingly are moving to alternative desegregation plans, such as the magnet school program in Prince George's County, he said.
But Reynolds said the Justice Department will not go out of its way to encourage school systems to seek relief from court supervision, emphasizing the decision is up to local authorities.
William L. Taylor, director of the Center for National Policy Review, which argues and studies school desegregation cases, said the reason Reynolds is not announcing a new campaign to free schools from court orders is that he has tried such a tactic in the past and failed to win interest.
Taylor also disputed Reynolds' contention that the Norfolk case broke no new ground, saying it told school boards for the first time that they could institute plans whose effect would be resegregation.
The ruling upheld the Norfolk School Board's plan to end busing for hundreds of elementary pupils on the ground that the school system had been declared "unitary," or free of the vestiges of past discrimination. The board's new neighborhood schools plan would mean that 10 of the city's 35 elementary schools would be virtually all black.
Plaintiffs promised an appeal to the. Supreme Court and warned that the ruling could resegregate many of the nation's schools. The Norfolk School Board said the ruling would stem "white flight" from the majority-black school system. The Justice Department joined the case on the side of the board.
Of the 530 school desegregation cases in which the Justice Department is involved, school systems have been declared unitary in 164, most of them in counties in Georgia and Alabama, according to statistics released by Reynolds' office yesterday. In 117 of those districts, no action has been taken to dismiss the case or lift the court decree. In 47, the case has been dismissed but the desegregation plans may not have been altered.
Those school districts declared unitary, especially the ones whose cases have been dismissed, probably have no reason to delay trying to free themselves from court supervision until the Supreme Court ruling in the Norfolk case, Reynolds said. He said the Norfolk ruling "obviously would be part of the discussions we'll have" with those districts.
In "100 or 100-plus" school districts, the systems are nowhere near being declared unitary and therefore are not eligible for relief from court orders, he said.