Twenty-five years ago, a federal judge wielded a widely used tool of social engineering to pry an intransigent majority-white school system from its Jim Crow practices.
Now a different judge must decide whether that tool -- busing -- has been rendered obsolete in Prince George's County, where today three quarters of the students are black.
The answer would seem simple, but it is not.
In a trial to begin tomorrow, Prince George's officials will ask U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte to declare the school system desegregated and end his supervision.
But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and parents who filed the suit that triggered the busing order want Messitte to remain involved until the school board presents a plan, and the means to pay for it, to close the academic achievement gap between black and white students.
The school board and NAACP have drafted a proposed out-of-court settlement that would end busing and spend $500 million over five years to build 15 schools and expand 29 others, reduce teacher-student ratios and expand programs for at-risk youngsters.
The proposal has been attacked by state and Prince George's officials as unrealistic, and there is no indication Messitte will venture beyond deciding the fate of busing to address the politically charged issue of who pays for improvements.
Few question that the 125,000-student Prince George's school system is on the verge of joining Baltimore and Washington on the list of regional education failures. It logged the second-worst Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test scores in the state. It has the second-highest concentration of students from families in poverty. Schools in older, inside-the-Beltway communities are crowded and dilapidated.
Many people, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, believe the state has an obligation to help rejuvenate neighborhood schools that were neglected during the busing era.
But critics of the proposed out-of-court settlement, Maryland school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick among them, say ending involuntary busing should not be tied to a state financial aid package. They note that a court-appointed panel of experts concluded this summer that most of the goals of the desegregation order have been met.
Alvin Thornton, a Prince George's school board member and chairman of the board's desegregation committee, disagrees.
"Desegregation has always meant bringing resources to black children," he says. "It would be disingenuous to return these children to their communities and crowded schools."
Thornton notes that while the panel of experts found Prince George's had done much to improve schools, it also recommended that Messitte require the school system to draft a plan, including sources of funding, to ensure continued improvement.
He says aid is needed to undo years of neglect at the hands of a formerly all-white school board that insisted on running a separate "colored" school system years after the Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional. That damage was exacerbated, he says, by 25 years of busing.
"In the 70s, black community schools were closed and the children were bused out to the suburbs. They became the numbers to justify building schools outside core black communities," Thornton says.
He doesn't think Messitte will take an activist role, making it "almost inevitable" that someone will file a Baltimore-style equitable education lawsuit.
"I don't see this judge ordering any major capital funding," says Thornton. "Given the expert panel's report that we haven't met all the quality-of-education requirements, he could order educational programs and require the school system to report to him annually on implementation."
If Messitte chooses to address the school aid issue, he will have a handful of proposals to sort through.
Glendening, who for 12 years was Prince George's County executive, has suggested a significant aid package for the school system -- something similar to the $254 million, five-year commitment Baltimore received this year.
But after running into a buzz saw of opposition, the governor is said to be contemplating a package of aid heavily weighted with one-time construction money.
Grasmick has proposed spending more than $45 million a year in new aid for local school systems, aimed at poor children. Her plan would send $9 million to Prince George's County.
State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has proposed a strings-attached $317-million aid package.
Prince George's would have to replace its elected school board with one appointed by the county executive and the governor, and it would have to lift the tax cap known as Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders (TRIM).
Thornton, a former Morgan State University professor, is puzzled by Baltimore's lack of empathy.
"The city should appreciate that its school system was always denied its share of funds until it introduced a new element -- a lawsuit," says Thornton, chairman of the Howard University political science department.
"We can't give up on our children. Every time you give up on public education, the community fails. Schools have to be the hub of the community, not a football stadium."
Pub Date: 11/17/97