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School Desegregation

The 1980s And After

In the 1980s, the attitude of the public and of the courts toward activist school desegregation programs—and toward other forms of affirmative action, for that matter—became more skeptical and sometimes even hostile. Courts began to require that busing, for example, be used as a remedy only in school districts where there had been "deliberate" or "intentional" segregation. A large busing program that had been begun in Los Angeles in 1978 was ended in 1981 through a statewide REFERENDUM that banned compulsory busing except in districts where there had been deliberate segregation. By the late 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Court, now having the influence of more conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents RONALD REAGAN and GEORGE H. W. BUSH, established that court-ordered desegregation decrees, including busing plans, could end short of specific statistical goals of integration when everything "practicable" had been done to eliminate the vestiges of past discrimination.

Two court decisions in the early 1990s—Board of Education v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 111 S. Ct. 630, 112 L. Ed. 2d 715 (1991), which dealt with the Oklahoma City School District, and Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 112 S. Ct. 1430, 118 L. Ed. 2d 108 (1992), which covered the schools of DeKalb County, Georgia—addressed the manner in which court supervision of school districts and their desegregation programs might end. In Freeman, the Court identified three factors that may be used in such determinations: (1) whether the school system has complied with the desegregation decree's provisions, (2) whether continued judicial control is necessary or practicable to achieve compliance with any aspect of the decree, and (3) whether the school system has demonstrated to the once-disfavored race its GOOD FAITH commitment to the whole of the decree. Ultimately, the school system must be held to have engaged in a good faith effort to comply with any judicially supervised desegregation program, and to have eliminated to the extent practicable any vestiges of discrimination. Freeman also established that courts may end desegregation decrees in incremental stages, gradually returning administrative functions and decisions to local authorities.

In another case—Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70, 115 S. Ct. 2038, 132 L. Ed. 2d 63 (1995), which dealt with the Kansas City (Missouri) School District—the Court stopped just short of ending judicial supervision of desegregation programs. However, the decision did strike down two requirements imposed by a district court on the state of Missouri, declaring them outside that court's authority. Those two requirements would have attempted to improve the "desegregative attractiveness"—in this case, the ability to attract white students from the suburban school districts—of the school district by requiring the state to fund salary increases for all staff in the school district, as well as "quality education" programs, including magnet schools. Such "interdistrict" remedies, the Court held, are beyond the scope of the district court. The Court, citing Milliken, disagreed with the contention that white flight justifies an interdistrict remedy to segregation. The Court also rejected student test scores as evidence for determining whether a school district has adequately responded to judicial desegregation decrees.

Those who supported these decisions saw them as returning to local authorities their proper control over their schools. They also saw these decisions as guiding the courts back to a more proper and limited social role. The courts, they argued, should not be engaged in programs of "social engineering." Others, both black and white, simply abandoned desegregation as a goal and instead focused on improving neighborhood schools, even when those schools remain largely segregated.

Critics of these decisions have seen them as a step backward for the CIVIL RIGHTS of minorities in the United States. Such decisions, they argued, merely perpetuated racism by returning school districts to those who often do not share the goal of creating racially integrated public schools. Others have argued that the changing pattern in the judicial response to desegregation has been caused by the legal system's exhaustion and impatience in the face of complex and protracted desegregation plans. Accustomed to seeing more rapid results, district courts, according to this argument, have been eager to return the control of school districts to local authorities.

Others have argued that the Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation have ignored the effect of discriminatory housing patterns. They have maintained that without a change in segregated housing patterns, desegregation, whether in schools or in the larger society, cannot be achieved. They claim that by ignoring housing as an issue, the Supreme Court enabled white America to escape its responsibilities in creating the urban ghetto.

Still others have argued that school desegregation can yet be achieved through the court system, maintaining that social change of the kind required for true desegregation will take many years. In the mid-1990s, organizations such as the AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION began to focus on making the case for school desegregation on the state rather than federal level. Some state constitutions, they pointed out, contain language more conducive to their cause. Connecticut's constitution, for example, declares that no person "shall … be subjected to segregation" (Conn. Const. art. 1, § 20), and Minnesota's requires that all students be given an adequate education. Lawsuits based on state constitutions have met with mixed success, prevailing in Connecticut but failing in Minnesota.

By 2003 most school districts had been released from federal court supervision. In addition, school districts had abandoned busing to achieve desegregation. The Minneapolis, Minnesota school district, which has a predominantly non-white student population, dropped busing in the late 1990s, opting instead to emphasize strong neighborhood schools. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, which was at the center of the school busing controversy, ended its busing program after a federal judge ended supervision in 1999. School desegregation has not been the panacea that it was claimed to be in the heady days of Brown. Though significant success in integration has been achieved, as of 2003 there was little evidence that comprehensive school desegregation would come any time soon.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of StateSchool Desegregation - 1954–1970: School Desegregation After Brown, The 1970s: Swann And Busing, The Busing Debate