The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to allow Norfolk to return to a public school system with neighborhood elementary schools this fall, permitting the Virginia city to become the first in the nation to win court approval to abandon a busing program that successfully integrated schools.
With three justices dissenting, the court declined to block Norfolk's plans to end most elementary school busing next school year. The high court thus rejected a petition from 22 black parents who claimed the proposal would resegregate most schools in the city.
The court dealt only with the issue of when the city could abandon its busing plan, but its action yesterday may signal that opponents of the Norfolk plan will have difficulty gaining the votes of enough justices to win a full hearing over the issue.
The court's action yesterday was regarded as victory for the Reagan administration.
Justice Department lawyers had joined with Norfolk officials in arguing that the city had done enough in 15 years of busing to eliminate the traces of its once-segregated public school system. William Bradford Reynolds, chief of the civil rights division, said last year that the Norfolk plan could apply to "many, many other school districts around the country."
"The effect of today's ruling is to allow them to go ahead," said a disappointed James Nabrit, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. The fund and others argued that the Norfolk plan would open the way for other school systems to abandon busing as a mean of racially integrating schools.
Hundreds of school systems, including those in Prince George's County and most major cities, are under court orders to integrate their schools, and many do so through busing.
"We're very pleased to get this," said Jack Greer, attorney for the School Board. The Neighborhood Elementary Schools Plan was adopted by the Norfolk School Board on April 14. It had been upheld by a District Court judge and a panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lawyers for the city and the NAACP agreed that Norfolk's busing plan had successfully ended "racially identifiable" schools in the city, but the School Board, citing massive white flight from the public schools, said that the plan was now harming the city and could lead to a largely black system. About 58 percent of the system's 36,000 students are black.
The plan that will become effective this fall calls for about 20,000 students from kindergarten through fifth grade to attend the elementary school nearest their homes. Because of Norfolk's housing patterns, that will result in 10 of the 36 schools becoming at least 96 percent black. At present, no elementary school has more than 78 percent of one racial group.
In seeking to block that, lawyers for the black parents said "the proposed resegregation would place several thousand black children, who have always attended integrated schools, in segregated schools for the first time in their lives."
In yesterday's vote, Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun voted in favor of an injunction, while Justice John Paul Stevens sought to postpone a decision on the injunction and speed up consideration of the formal appeal for a writ of certiorari, granting the full hearing in the case.
Eleven years ago, Norfolk convinced a federal judge that its schools -- after decades of operating separate schools for blacks and whites -- were fully integrated. It voluntarily continued the busing plan.
In 1983, the white-majority Norfolk School Board decided to end the busing, saying it wanted to halt white flight and spark economic development in the city, which has been losing thousands of families to its neighboring suburbs. The board, however, postponed a vote on implementing a neighborhood plan until this spring.
In the school year just ended, elementary school children rode buses back and forth across the port city, attending 41 "paired" schools, which served either grades K-3 or 4-6.
Under the new plan, which includes a pledge by the School Board to continue busing to middle and senior high schools, sixth graders will move up to middle schools.
"The good thing about today's news is that it will enable an orderly transition," said George Raiss, administrative assistant to Norfolk School Superintendent Gene R. Carter.