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Jewish World Review Sept. 16, 1999 /6 Tishrei, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Closing the bus(sing) doors -- LAST FRIDAY, a federal judge ordered a halt to the country's oldest Supreme Court-mandated school busing plan in Charlotte, N.C., marking the end of an era that has lasted almost 30 years.

U.S. District Judge Robert Potter ordered the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district to stop assigning students to schools based on the color of their skin, despite a 28-year-old Supreme Court ruling that established the procedure in the first place. The Charlotte case illustrates the reversal of fortune busing has undergone in the last three decades. What began as a liberal experiment in promoting racial integration and harmony ended in white flight, bitter disappointment and opposition, even among blacks.

From its inception, forced busing to achieve racial integration was controversial. White parents faced with busing their children to poor, often unsafe, inner-city schools fled to suburbs beyond the reach of court orders. Black parents whose children were forced to ride school buses across town two or three hours a day just to attend schools with white children soon began to complain angrily that the time and money busing entailed could be better spent on improving classroom instruction in their neighborhood schools. But despite its unpopularity, forced busing became a common tool in school districts around the country, large and small, urban and suburban.

From Charlotte, to Boston, to Denver, to San Francisco, judges ordered school systems to assign students on the basis of race and ethnicity to achieve some imaginary ideal of racial and ethnic balance. Rather than merely forcing schools to end illegal racial segregation, which had been outlawed since 1954, judges became social engineers bent on achieving certain racial and ethnic mixes within individual schools, regardless of the consequences for students, faculty or the communities in which the schools were based.

But try as they might, most courts failed miserably at their racial and ethnic balancing act. School systems like that in Denver found its student population went from two-thirds white, when it began court-ordered busing in 1973, to two-thirds black and Hispanic two decades later, as more affluent parents fled the public schools and the city itself.

Indeed, as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom point out in their monumental study "America in Black and White," few large American cities today even have a majority non-Hispanic white population, and none has a majority white public-school population. Given these demographic realities, school districts are often hard-pressed to achieve anything approaching racial integration.

Still, courts have been reluctant to give up their oversight of student assignments. Last year, the Center for Equal Opportunity, which I head, obtained records from the U.S. Justice Department indicating some 585 school-desegregation cases remain on the federal court dockets. I have since written all the federal judges in the districts where these cases remain open, urging them to search their dockets to determine whether illegal segregation of these schools still exists and, if not, to dissolve the court orders and dismiss the cases.

Some judges have responded favorably and have pledged to review those cases under their jurisdiction. One judge in Texas invited the lawyers in a desegregation case in his district to a status conference to determine whether it was time -- after 20 years -- to close the case down. Others have written to accuse me of having some nefarious ideological agenda. Still others have failed to respond at all.

Ironically, most of these 585 cases stem from the original Supreme Court decision that approved forced busing for Charlotte-Mecklenburg students in 1971. In that case, Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court granted broad discretionary power to federal district courts to "remedy past wrongs," including "the very limited use ... of mathematical ratios" to assign students of differing races and ethnic groups to the same schools.

The Supreme Court has since decided such methods should not continue "in perpetuity," but not all the lower courts have gotten the message. Now that the district court in Charlotte-Mecklenburg has reached its historic decision, others should follow suit and get the federal courts out of the business of making student assignments.

Linda Chavez Archives


©1999, Creators Syndicate