The Supreme Court has decided to allow a federal judge to stop supervising most of the school desegregation efforts in DeKalb County, Ga., even though complete desegregation has not been achieved. This was inevitable.
The federal judiciary began micro-managing formerly segregated school districts in 1968. Why? Because for over a decade the Supreme Court's demand that school officials desegregate with "all deliberate speed" produced almost no integration. That 1968 decision set down specific standards for federal judges to use in specific areas of school operation to make sure that districts produced truly non-segregated systems. The Supreme Court indicated this involvement was to be temporary.
Since then, the Supreme Court has on several occasions repeated that it wants the scores of school districts under federal court control to be returned to strictly local autonomy wherever and as soon as possible. In 1976, for example, in a California case, the justices overturned a district judge who ordered a system to change its attendance zones every year, if shifting residential patterns altered the racial makeup of schools.
In the recent Georgia case, racial segregation was largely the result of changing demographics -- as blacks moved en masse into the southern half of the county, whites into the north. This week's Supreme Court decision, in Justice Anthony Kennedy's words, "make[s] explicit the rationale that was central in [that 1976 case]. A federal court in a desegregation case has the discretion to order an incremental or partial withdrawal of its supervision and control." It also emphasized that school officials are not obligated to overcome "new" segregation not caused by official state action.
What concerns critics of this decision is the belief that local officials in school districts that still have not yet met all the criteria for desegregation will, if unsupervised, return to their old ways of discriminating against blacks. We doubt that. Even in Southern communities where there may be the wish to do so, there is probably not the political will. Furthermore, even though a judge had relinquished oversight of a school district's operations, a new abridgment of a constitutional right would be cause for a new federal suit.
There is more to fear from another form of racial discrimination in education: the continuing, widespread and growing discrepancy between largely black urban schools and largely white suburban ones. The disproportion between resources available for black students in Baltimore City and white students in Montgomery County, for example, is far greater and more discriminatory than that between students in northern and southern DeKalb County, Ga. Less than $5,000 is spent per pupil per year in Baltimore; more than $7,500 is spent per pupil per year in Montgomery. How to overcome this gap is the real challenge to the nation.