OKLAHOMA CITY -- Brian Ralls stood with his son, Brandon, at Longfellow Elementary School the other day, looking over the cracked concrete playground and the basketball hoops without nets as he waited to enroll the 5-year-old in kindergarten.
When Ralls attended Longfellow more than 20 years ago, the school -- located in a low-income neighborhood on the northeast side of town -- was virtually all black. Today, nearly 30 years after black parents filed a lawsuit charging that Oklahoma City operated a racially segregated school system, it still is.
The difference may not be apparent to Ralls, but much has happened to the Oklahoma schools since he was a Longfellow student.
In 1984, the school board voted to end 13 years of court-ordered busing and return to "neighborhood schools" for children in grades one through four. The result was an immediate return to racial divisions that existed before busing. In a system with 40 percent black enrollment, 10 of 58 elementary schools, including Longfellow, became virtually all black. Five other schools are 80 percent white, although whites account for 45 percent of the city's school population.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate but equal" was inherently unequal, the court has ordered discriminatory school systems to use whatever means necessary to eliminate "root and branch" the vestiges of discrimination. Next week, when the justices hear oral argument in Board of Education of the Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, the court will try to determine when a formerly segregated school system has succeeded in achieving that goal and what obligations, if any, it has to maintain integrated schools once that has occurred.
For school officials in Oklahoma City and hundreds of other school districts -- including Prince George's County -- that remain under court orders, the case represents a chance for the justices to practice what they have always preached and return desegregated schools to local control.
"I think we've proven ourselves that we do believe in an integrated system," said Betty Hill, an Oklahoma City school board member since 1976. "It would be nice to have some control over the things that are happening in our schools."
But for civil rights groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which won the Brown case and has represented black parents in Oklahoma City since the lawsuit was filed in 1961, what is at stake in the case is nothing less than "Brown itself," said Julius L. Chambers, the legal defense fund's director.
"What's advocated here is that you desegregate for a few years and then you go back and do what you were doing before," said Chambers. "If that's all that a board need do, then Brown and all of the cases that followed it will mean very little."
Abandoning the busing plan, Chambers noted, relegated 40 percent of black schoolchildren in those grades to one-race schools.
A neighborhood school plan was, in fact, the initial response of city school officials to the landmark 1954 decision. But superimposed on a city whose neighborhoods had been rigidly segregated by race, the plan did little to desegregate schools and even spurred further residential segregation, as white families moved away from black areas.
In 1972, U.S. District Court Judge Luther L. Bohanon, ruling that the school board had "totally defaulted" in its duty to desegregate schools, ordered a busing plan. Black students in first through fourth grades were bused to formerly all-white schools; in fifth grade, white students were bused to formerly all-black schools.
Bohanon, appointed to the bench by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, was hanged in effigy. White parents fled the school system for neighboring suburbs or private schools: the school population plummeted from 69,000 students (25 percent black) the year before busing to 38,000 (40 percent black) this year, in a city that is about 15 percent black. Black parents grumbled as well, particularly since the brunt of busing in the early grades fell on their children.
In 1977, Bohanon granted the school board's motion to close the case, ruling that it had "slowly and painfully" achieved a desegregated system. Seven years later, the board voted to end busing for nearly 3,000 children in grades 1 through 4, though not in the later grades.
Board members, including the one black member, noted that as the city became more integrated, a growing number of elementary schools were being excused from the busing plan, and black children were being bused longer distances to integrate the remaining schools.
A group of black parents challenged the move, arguing that although Bohanon had closed the case, he had never lifted the 1972 busing order, and the school board therefore still had to comply with it. As the case traveled up and down the federal court system, Bohanon repeatedly disagreed, ruling in 1987 that the board had taken "absolutely no action" to contribute to the continuing patterns of residential segregation that resulted in the one-race schools.
The federal appeals court reversed his decision, saying that a court order in a school desegregation case, just as in other cases, remains in effect unless those seeking to have it lifted demonstrate "dramatic changes" that make it a hardship for them and no longer necessary to safeguard the rights of those it was designed to benefit.
"Once dismantled, the dual school system should remain dismantled," the appeals court said in the decision now before the high court. The return to neighborhood schools, it said, "has the effect of reviving those conditions that necessitated a remedy in the first instance."
The court could have been referring to Creston Hills elementary school, a run-down Spanish-style building where the paint is peeling from the outside walls and third-grade teacher Kay Edwards brings in grocery bags so that students whose families are too poor to afford backpacks will have a way to carry their papers home. Of the 235 students, none are white.
Asked about opportunities her students have to meet with whites other than their teachers, Principal Linda Toure said, "I could not tell you. I really can't think of any. Perhaps shopping in shopping malls."
As part of the neighborhood school plan, students at black schools are supposed to "interact" several times each year with white students, visiting schools and exchanging letters. The first year, Edwards recalled, some white children taunted her students, chanting "Black, black, black," when they walked into the cafeteria at 7-percent-black Fillmore. Last year, she said, the interaction consisted of seeing a play at the Oklahoma Children's Theater, and then having lunch.
Toure, who is black, is blunt about the drawbacks of a one-race school. But weighing the costs and benefits, she is pleased with the change. "I think that link to the community makes a big difference in how kids feel about their schools and parents feel about their schools," she said. "When you bus kids out, I think you bus some of that commitment with them."
Across town, at Quail Creek elementary school, Principal Ancil Warren presides over the most affluent grade school in the Oklahoma City system. All classes use material designed for gifted students. Last year, 76 parents volunteered 1,900 hours of their time to help in the classroom and with computer training in the school's "media center."
The 170 members of the PTA raised more than $17,000, used to air-condition the cafeteria and two classrooms. In previous years, PTA funds have been used to carpet the building, to purchase a copying machine, to buy extra computers and software. (Creston Hills, by contrast, had 15 PTA members, and no volunteers.)
Of 341 students at Quail Creek this year, Warren said, about 40 are black. "I think that schools should be integrated," he said. "But I also know that you have to maintain a stable school situation which all parents feel comfortable with. We tried busing the kids. And I think that we were convinced at the time that the parents' choice, for the majority of all parents, was the neighborhood schools concept."
The contrast between Quail Creek and Creston Hills is stark. But school superintendent Arthur W. Steller insisted that an affluent school like Quail Creek "is not a fair comparison," and that other, integrated schools in low-income neighborhoods suffer from the same problems as Creston Hills and other all-black schools.
He also points out that the all-black schools receive extra funds so that per-pupil spending averages $2,364 compared to $1,917 at the 10 schools with the lowest percentage of black students.
As a result of the neighborhood school plan, Steller said, parents have been attracted back to schools, participating more in PTA and parent-teacher conferences. In four years, the gap in test scores between the all-black schools and the district as a whole has been narrowed from 16 to 11 points.
But some parents and teachers -- even those who prefer neighborhood schools to busing -- view the situation in a far less rosy light.
While proponents of neighborhood schools have touted the importance of parental involvement, the reality, said Barbara Shelton, a white kindergarten teacher at Polk elementary, where there is one white student out of 221, is that the parents are "just so wrapped up in their own problems that they don't have any energy left for the children and the school."
A report released Sept. 17 by the "equity committee" established to monitor the schools following the adoption of the neighborhood schools system concluded the schools are "worse than the group of comparison schools," pointing to test scores, teacher performance, and facilities. The school board voted 5 to 2 to reject the report, concluding it was seriously "flawed" and based on "faulty" data.
"We predicted that the kids were going to be shortchanged," said Roosevelt Milton, president of the local NAACP. "That's proven to be the fact."
Whether or not that has happened, the sentiment among parents, black as well as white, appears to be strongly opposed to doing away with neighborhood schools. Few black parents take advantage of a provision that lets them transfer their children to any majority-white school, with transportation at school board expense.
Of a dozen parents questioned as they picked up their children at Creston Hills after school one day recently, only one said she would rather have her child bused to an integrated school than attend an all-black school in the neighborhood.
"Black children don't have to sit next to white children in order to get a quality education," said Glendora Sykes, a black former PTA president. And, she said, abandoning the neighborhood schools "would truly devastate our community. On the northeast side of town, you have no stores, no shopping centers. You take the schools away and what do you have left?"
It is clear, as well, that many white parents would leave the schools if busing resumes. "I'd take my children out and put them in private schools," said Sarah Simpson, picking up her daughters at Quail Creek one recent afternoon.
Other black parents, however, say they are convinced that a busing plan -- one more equitable than the original 1972 plan -- is critical to assuring equal rights and that the constitutional rights of black children should not be put to a popular vote. "Unless you start an an early age, by the time a child gets to the fifth grade, that child is already formed in his mind, his ideas as far as race relations are concerned," said Clara Luper, whose daughter was an original plaintiff challenging the neighborhood schools plan.
City school officials are equally vehement in defense of the neighborhood plan. "We've done everything the court has asked us to do," said Steller, the superintendent. "As an educator, I don't think schools can be held responsible for all the things that we might prefer in our society to have happen."