Gary Orfield, the noted University of Chicago urbanologist, has an unusual idea for improving Chicago’s troubled public schools: we ought to try desegregating them, he says.

It was a nice idea in the 60s, when the student body was about half white and half black, the schools almost totally segregated, and the black schools clearly shortchanged–they were much more frequently overcrowded than the white ones, had larger class sizes, an abundance of uncertified teachers, and fewer libraries and auditoriums. Desegregated schools would hinder such discrimination, civil rights leaders said; black kids couldn’t routinely be allotted inferior teachers and facilities if they were mixed with white kids.

But desegregate Chicago’s schools today? With only about 13 percent of their students white? Might as well make apple pie with a teaspoon of apples.

Except, Orfield says, that there are plenty of white students around–just beyond Harlem Avenue, and Howard, and 115th. The schools in suburban Cook County are almost as white as Chicago’s schools are black and Hispanic. And though the disparities in school quality have shifted from within the city to between the city and suburbs, they follow racial lines as blatantly as they did in the 60s. Small class sizes benefit slow learners particularly, many studies show; the multitude of struggling students attends Chicago schools, but the smaller classes are in the suburbs. Suburban school teachers spend their time teaching, not scrounging around for workbooks, scissors, tape, crayons, and paper. Small wonder that the top teachers and administrators gravitate to the suburban schools, where the pay is often better and the conditions almost always are.

Suburban school districts tussle with budget shortfalls periodically, but they don’t have to bring tin cups to Springfield every September just to open the schools. Teacher strikes in the suburbs are occasional possibilities, not annual rituals.

It’s unfair and unreasonable to require the school system with the least resources to educate the vast majority of the kids with the greatest needs, Orfield says. To remedy this, he thinks Chicago should push for the establishment of a voluntary interdistrict transfer program that would allow students in metropolitan Chicago to attend schools in districts other than their own, as long as their transfer enhanced integration. The program would allow Chicago blacks and Hispanics to capitalize on the superior resources of suburban schools. Orfield believes it would also help solve the city schools’ financial problems eventually; when inner-city minorities start attending suburban schools, those school districts will begin to appreciate the costs of educating them, he says, and join the city in lobbying Springfield for more aid.

Orfield’s ideas are not ivory-tower pipe dreams. Numerous metropolitan areas with school dilemmas like Chicago’s have begun interdistrict transfer programs in recent years. Education officials in Saint Louis and Milwaukee say that thousands of minority schoolchildren are profiting from their interdistrict programs in the ways Orfield suggests minorities would here.

The suburbs don’t volunteer to participate in such programs; they have to be coaxed by lawsuits, or the threat of them. Those lawsuits can bring windfalls to inner-city schools. The city school board typically sues the suburbs and the state, charging that their policies helped racially segregate the city school system from the rest of the metropolitan area. Policies that fostered segregated housing, thereby creating the segregated schools, often are used as evidence. Given that the Chicago area “is the most segregated metropolitan area in the United States,” Orfield says, according to recent studies he has conducted, it probably wouldn’t be hard to find such evidence here.

Courts ruling for the plaintiffs have required states to establish interdistrict programs and pay all of the costs. States have been ordered to fund the development of special magnet schools within the city, ostensibly to attract suburban students. Whether the suburban kids come or not, the city schoolchildren benefit from the schools. States found liable for segregation also have been ordered to spend millions on upgrading inner-city schools likely to remain racially isolated.

Without an interdistrict transfer program, attempts to desegregate schools in a city like Chicago have as much chance as a black running for alderman on the northwest side. This fact was recognized in the consent decree the board and the Justice Department signed in 1980, in which the board finally agreed to desegregate its schools. Noting that the schools were then 81 percent minority, the decree required the board to pursue interdistrict transfers as part of its desegregation effort. The board dutifully notes in desegregation documents each year its support for an interdistrict transfer program; but it has never taken the legal steps necessary to try to establish one.

Instead, it has spent a half billion dollars since 1981 on desegregation schemes that move thousands of children around on buses–but barely reduce the numbers of minorities in segregated schools–and on compensatory programs for segregated schools that board members themselves acknowledge don’t seem to be improving minority achievement. The only accomplishment of the city’s desegregation efforts has been the development of special magnet schools and programs, which, it is widely agreed, are among the few quality offerings in the Chicago public schools. But whites, not minorities, have been granted disproportionate access to these schools.

The board hasn’t gone to court seeking an interdistrict program because no one is prodding it to. In the 60s, blacks and their white compatriots were shouting for school desegregation in marches on City Hall and rallies at the Board of Education. But Chicago’s education activists of the 80s just aren’t thinking in terms of school desegregation anymore.

You see this clearly in the “school reform” meetings being held across the city. Spurred by the foul memories of the 19-day strike that ushered in this school year, parents, teachers, community leaders, and elected officials have been skipping dinners at home on weeknights, or rising early on Saturdays, and gathering in park field houses and assembly halls. There they discuss school-based management, elected school boards, principal autonomy, and teacher accountability. Race and class issues are disposed of quickly on the rare occasions they arise. Government policies that foster segregation aren’t the chief villains anymore; inefficient local bureaucrats are. Ax those nerds on the board and chop the top–rid the system of its infinite numbers of superfluous administrators (never mind that Chicago’s school system is actually short on administrators, as it is short on everything else, according to a recent study by the Illinois State Board of Education). Where once people hollered “desegregation,” now it’s “decentralization”; you cure a big, poor school system by slicing it into many small, poor parts.

Some minority leaders have embraced decentralization; others are wary, saying it would likely benefit Chicago’s few middle-class schools more than its poor ones. None of them call for more desegregation.

Ghetto schoolchildren don’t need racial mixing, the minority leaders say today, just more money from Springfield for their schools. “If the environment is conducive to learning, all children can learn in that environment, notwithstanding their color or how many whites are there,” asserts State Senator Earlean Collins of the west side, a member of the senate education committee. Adds south-side State Senator Richard Newhouse, another member of the committee: “I think a lot of black parents are saying, ‘The hell with [desegregation], let’s just get down to educating our kids.'”

Which is music to the ears of President Reagan and others who have been saying the hell with desegregation for years. The president likes to make visits to the rare successful ghetto schools–not to the tens of thousands that are failing–where he proclaims, as he did on one such visit last year, “No matter who you are or where you’re from, you can learn.” His administration has been more than pleased to accommodate minority leaders’ declining interest in school desegregation–slashing federal desegregation funds and fighting busing programs.

Attempts to improve ghetto schools are laudable, Orfield says, and putting more power in local schools might be a good idea. But reform plans devoid of strategies for genuine desegregation won’t improve Chicago schools much, he thinks. He doesn’t expect the predominantly white legislature, historically stingy toward public schools, to suddenly open its wallet for a school system growing ever blacker and browner. Trying to provide quality education in ghetto schools citywide is a nebulous proposition at best, he says, given the concentration of poverty in those schools; even if you were able to do it, those schools still wouldn’t teach children “how to work and live in an interracial setting.” The metropolitan Chicago area, with its growing numbers of minorities, can’t keep putting off that task, he says.

But he’s not surprised to see minority leaders who once fought heartily for school desegregation shrug their shoulders about it now. Two contradictory aims have long battled for the hearts of minorities, he says–upgrading their own institutions, and joining the mainstream. “When people are very pessimistic, almost all the energy turns inward, and that’s where we are today,” he says. “We’ve got a hostile federal bureaucracy, a very conservative Supreme Court, and no real civil rights movement functioning effectively–the NAACP is out of money, a lot of the other groups have disappeared. Nobody expects that they can bring about any kind of basic change. It’s a counterpoint of what happened in the 60s, when everything seemed possible.”

If you limit your desegregation effort to the city’s borders in a school system like Chicago’s–where the vast majority of students are black or Hispanic–you can, by spending millions and catering to the few white students, provide desegregated settings for a handful more of minority schoolchildren. And that sums up Chicago’s current desegregation effort.

A report issued in December by a school watchdog group documents how little desegregation Chicago’s desegregation program has produced. The Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance studied changes in the racial makeup of the city’s schools from 1980–the year the consent decree was signed–through 1986. In the 1980-81 school year, 89 percent of the minority children in the Chicago public schools attended segregated schools–that is, schools with fewer than 30 percent white students. In the next five school years, $325 million of desegregation money would be spent and hundreds of thousands of bus trips taken; predominantly white schools would be successfully desegregated–now no school has a white enrollment of more than 70 percent. But because the proportion of minority students continued to grow, their racial isolation would be barely diminished; by the 1985-86 school year, 86 percent of minority children still attended segregated schools.

In raw numbers, 41,778 of the public schools’ 371,306 minority students attended integrated schools in 1980-81. Five years later, 53,211 of 368,161 minorities were in integrated schools. The desegregation plan had helped move 11,433 minority students out of their segregated schools. Only 314,950 were left in ghetto schools.

In ’80-81, 164,377 minority students–all but a handful of them black–attended schools in which not a single white was enrolled, according to the Chicago Panel’s report. In ’85-86, 157,023 still did. The number of minorities attending one-race high schools actually rose slightly over the five years.

Black schoolchildren continue to be far more racially isolated than Hispanics: 86 percent of black students attended schools that were less than 15 percent white in ’85-86, compared with 59 percent of Hispanic students.

Though the Chicago Panel’s calculations extend only to the 1985-86 school year, board documents indicate that if any more desegregation has occurred since, it is minuscule. And if the schools aren’t already becoming even more segregated, they soon will be; the proportion of white schoolchildren is expected to continue shrinking, primarily because the number of Hispanics with young children in Chicago is climbing rapidly.

To achieve this speck of desegregation, Chicago has relied principally on magnet schools, and magnet programs within regular schools, to which students citywide generally can apply.

While they don’t desegregate the school system much–the program is too small–the magnets are the pride and glory of the Chicago public schools, standing out like a working elevator in a housing project. At most grade levels, students in the neighborhood schools are a half year behind national norms in reading and math, according to the Iowa tests; students in the magnets are a half year ahead of the national pace. And the gap is growing: eighth-grade reading scores in the magnets rose slightly each of the last two years, while the scores in the rest of the schools declined slightly.

The city’s 45 magnet schools have numerous advantages over the neighborhood schools. Each magnet has a special focus–foreign languages perhaps, or science and math, or fine arts–and is allotted four or five extra teachers to lead classes in that specialty. Neighborhood schools must enroll all applying children from their attendance areas; the magnets get their students from their citywide applicants. Children who get into the magnets have parents who study the school system’s options when their kid is still a toddler, and who know when and how to apply–parents who therefore tend to be better educated and often middle-class. Thus, there are significantly fewer low-income children in the magnet schools than in the neighborhood schools, though the magnet student bodies are by no means affluent: 55 percent of the children in integrated elementary magnet schools receive free or reduced-price lunches, compared with 79 percent in the other elementary schools, according to my calculations of individual school figures. The schools conduct lotteries in accordance with racial quotas to determine who gets in–a process regulated more strictly now, after complaints that children with clout-heavy parents routinely won positions. Magnet principals can pick their school’s teachers from those who apply, an option principals of most neighborhood schools do not enjoy. And high-caliber teachers apply to the magnets in large numbers. They want to teach in magnet schools “the same way the full professors in college want to teach the honors classes,” board member George Munoz says. As for the ghetto schools–“Teachers say ‘I don’t want to go into that combat zone, I don’t believe I’ll be safe’ or ‘I don’t believe that those students want to learn,'” Munoz says.

The magnets are required by the city’s desegregation plan to enroll 65 to 85 percent minority students. That means that whites, who constitute just 12.9 percent of the citywide school population, have 15 to 35 percent of the seats in the magnet schools set aside for them.

The magnets were devised to give the city as many integrated schools as possible; and the schools wouldn’t really be integrated unless they enrolled a greater proportion of whites than are enrolled citywide.

But while the rationale for the enrollment formula is understandable, the bottom line is that whites can more easily get into the city’s best schools. And they have seized this advantage: last school year, twice as many whites (27 percent) were enrolled in the integrated magnet schools as were enrolled citywide (13.5 percent), my calculations of board data indicate. Blacks composed just 40 percent of the integrated magnets’ enrollment, though citywide the student enrollment was 60 percent black. And the proportion of blacks in the magnets is declining; it’s dropped every year since 1981, as the number of Hispanics has risen (Hispanics composed 25 percent of those in magnet schools last year, and 23 percent of the citywide student body).

The city’s desegregation plan also offers special magnet programs within otherwise standard schools to try to establish and maintain desegregated enrollments in those schools. These programs–studies in fine arts, foreign languages, computer education, classes for the gifted–are even whiter than the full-site magnet schools: whites composed 36 percent of the students last year, nearly three times their proportion citywide. Only 34 percent of the students in these special programs were black.

In all, 25 percent of the 58,000 whites enrolled in the Chicago public schools last year were in either an integrated magnet school or a special magnet program; only 7 percent of the 260,000 blacks were enrolled in those same programs. Whites, in other words, are benefiting from the desegregation plan’s improved product in far greater proportions than blacks, the intended primary beneficiaries. “It’s a very ironic twist of events,” Munoz says.

It’s also inevitable, Orfield says, under desegregation schemes limited to a big city’s borders. Such desegregation plans are bound to cater to whites, he says: white students are scarce in the city schools, desegregation depends on keeping them in the schools, and they won’t stay unless offered something special. Interdistrict programs reverse this situation, he says. The suburban school districts usually are awarded financial bonuses for the minorities they enroll in their schools. So the suburban schools develop special programs to attract them; the inner-city minorities become the coveted students.

Recognizing that many schools would remain segregated, the board in its desegregation plan committed itself to providing special “compensatory” programs in those schools, to offset the disadvantages that typically ensue from segregation. In this effort as well the board appears to be flunking.

The board’s chief compensatory program is the Chicago Effective Schools Project (CESP). The segregated schools with the lowest achievement scores in the city were targeted in 1981 for special intervention programs. The schools got extra teachers and aides, and special staff training designed to raise staff expectations for students and to improve the atmosphere in the schools. Parental involvement also was strongly encouraged. The program began with 45 schools in 1981, expanding to 107 schools in the 1983-84 school year.

In its recent report, the Chicago Panel studied reading scores in the original 45 CESP schools from ’81 through ’86. The Panel found that although the schools showed some gains in the first three years, “they persist in reporting some of the lowest reading achievement scores of any of the segregated schools, and they have failed to make any significant increases in achievement in the last several years.”

The board’s own Department of Research and Evaluation studied achievement in the CESP schools and likewise found nothing to brag about. The department compared Iowa test scores of students in CESP schools with those of students in segregated schools not receiving the special compensatory programs. Students in the non-CESP schools actually gained more in reading and math scores in the period studied, 1983 through 1986, than students in CESP schools.

Mary Broomfield, assistant superintendent of equal educational opportunity programs, insists, however, that the CESP schools are improving in ways that can’t easily be measured. “Principals [of CESP schools] often say that teacher morale has improved, school climate is better, discipline problems have gone down,” she says.

Not so, says the board’s Monitoring Commission for Desegregation Implementation. The commission, established to keep tabs on the board’s desegregation efforts, last year surveyed teachers and principals at 19 CESP schools. The teachers generally had low expectations for students, feared for their personal safety, felt they did not get enough support from principals and parents in dealing with discipline problems and in getting children to complete their homework, and thought they did not have adequate supplies, the commission’s principal investigator, Mary Davidson, says. Expectations were lower and concerns for safety higher in the black schools than in the Hispanic ones, she says.

The commission also reviewed reading test scores in the 19 schools from ’83 through ’86. The results: “We should all cry for our children,” Davidson told the board’s desegregation committee last October. In only one of the 19 schools did students average the national norm of a three-year gain over the three years studied; in many schools, students gained little more than two years. Davidson divided the schools into categories of low, medium, and high gains; she found the Hispanic schools to be evenly divided in the medium- and high-gain categories, while most of the black schools were in the low-gain category.

“The moneys have not been sufficiently large to turn an overwhelmingly bad situation into a positive one,” Munoz says of the compensatory programs.

But there would be more money for the compensatory programs, critics of the desegregation program say, if the board didn’t spend so much of its desegregation money on its prize magnet schools.

The students in ghetto schools–black, brown, poor, and struggling academically–were intended to be the main beneficiaries of the desegregation program. But the board spent an average of only $95 of desegregation money per student in racially isolated schools (schools with fewer than 15 percent white students) in the 1985-86 school year, according to the Chicago Panel. Meantime, it spent an average of $211 per pupil on the magnet schools–on students who are disproportionately white, middle-class, and high-achieving. The per-pupil figures do not include transportation expenditures; it costs an average of more than $1,000 a year to bus each magnet school student.

More “nonquota” teachers–teachers not assigned to a classroom but to a special program–are allotted magnet schools than segregated schools; that accounts for most of the funding disparity. In 1986-87, 199 nonquota teachers were allotted to the 45 magnet schools, or an average of 4.42 per school, according to board records. The 333 racially isolated schools got 651 special teachers–an average of 1.95 per school.

Some students in segregated schools don’t get a penny of desegregation funds. In 1985-86, 24,089 students attended segregated schools that got no desegregation money–not one special teacher, not even an aide–according to the Chicago Panel. Some racially isolated schools were allotted just one $9,000 aide per 1,000 students, a benefit amounting to $9 per student, the Panel reported.

The minority schools will receive an additional $16.6 million of federal money annually for five years beginning this September, pursuant to a court settlement. But even with this extra aid, magnet school students will still be receiving a significantly disproportionate share of desegregation funds, unless the board changes the way it allocates the money, the Chicago Panel says.

Sure, the board spends more proportionately on the magnets, but it’s not because it cares more about them than about the segregated minority schools, Broomfield says. It’s just that the magnet schools were established first (in 1978, under the Access to Excellence program). The compensatory component of the board’s desegregation effort began after the consent decree was signed in 1980, and was dependent on new desegregation funds becoming available. With the Reagan administration in Washington and a miserly General Assembly in Springfield, not much has become available.

The board could, of course, reduce its funding of magnet schools and shift the money to the ghetto schools; that’s what some critics of the desegregation program maintain should be done. “We should improve all our schools–not just take all the money and put it into the magnets,” says State Senator Earlean Collins. The magnets “drain away the money” with all their extra teachers, she says, while some of the schools in her west-side district lack “the bare bones necessities.”

But Broomfield says the critics forget how small the magnet school program is, and how little could be saved by reducing it. Though more is spent per pupil on the magnets, there are only 45 magnet schools, and so only $8 million of the $88 million spent on desegregation in 1986-87 went directly to those schools. Only $6 million more is spent on magnet programs within other schools. If you cut desegregation funding for the magnet schools and programs by 50 percent, the $7 million saved wouldn’t change things much in the 333 racially isolated schools. All it would do is ruin the magnets, she says.

Axing the magnet school program altogether isn’t a solution either, Broomfield says. This would save the $14 million spent on magnet schools and programs, and the $30 million spent on busing. But a court would have to OK such a radical change in the board’s desegregation program. And the $30 million spent on busing is primarily state money earmarked for that purpose. The legislature would not necessarily appropriate that money to Chicago schools for other purposes.

“I don’t think we solve the problems by tearing down what is working,” Broomfield says.

Given more time, more money, and a system that makes teachers more accountable, the compensatory programs will work, Broomfield says.

It’s possible, of course, that the effort is flawed in its design; that providing “compensatory” programs in ghetto schools is like trying to blow air back into a balloon with holes in it; that it is as likely to succeed as any separate-but-equal strategy.

This view, though, is quickly dismissed as elitist today by minority leaders and officials. Having endured teachers and school systems that assumed poor black and Hispanic kids couldn’t learn, minorities cringe when they hear suggestions that the ghetto school is the problem. The inscription on Broomfield’s coffee mug reads “All children can learn”; and the poster on her office wall quotes Ron Edmonds, the late black education activist from Harvard: “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.” Says Broomfield: “Just because we cannot integrate a school does not mean that we cannot provide quality education for the school. I don’t think it’s trying for separate and equal–it’s just a realistic appraisal of where we are. This is what we have to work with, and this is where we must do the job.”

Says Munoz: “I believe you can take a racially isolated school and, with the appropriate attention, make such a school a high performer. Such schools do exist in the system.”

But can it be done in 333 schools, or just in extraordinary cases? “That’s the real question,” Munoz allows. “There’s always going to be a Marva Collins school or a Father Clements school–but can you duplicate them in a large urban center like Chicago? And the answer is that many things would have to happen. It would take a change of attitudes, aggressive parent groups, aggressive, challenging principals, and teachers who will accept the challenge. It would mean somehow instilling hope back into the student body. That’s not easy to do when you have high unemployment among parents of those in racially isolated schools, low wages among those who are working, single-parent families, drugs on the street. It’s hard to instill the American dream into everyone involved in the education of that child, including the child himself.”

Then there’s perhaps the key ingredient: money. Skeptics and supporters alike agree that attempts to provide quality education in the ghetto are doomed if not adequately funded. Money is needed for training programs that will help parents become more involved with the schools, for bonuses that would attract high-caliber teachers to the ghetto schools, for lower class sizes, for adequate supplies. And where is that money going to come from? The $16 million of federal money that will be pumped into the segregated schools in each of the next five years “is not that much when you consider the huge number of students and schools in need,” Munoz says. To even have a chance of providing quality ghetto schools throughout Chicago, “you need millions and millions of dollars,” Munoz says. “And nobody’s willing to pay it.”

“Our damn desegregation plan was a big mistake,” board vice president William Farrow says. “What we did was set up a lot of special little programs to keep white flight down–and in the process, we robbed the rest of the system.”

His remedy, though, is not for the board to seek methods to genuinely desegregate the schools; we should forget about desegregation, he believes, and put all our chips on the ghetto schools. By getting better teachers and principals in the minority schools, “we can make every school a good school,” he says–though he’s not sure how we can get them there.

Chicago’s misguided efforts have helped give school desegregation here a bad name, and minority leaders now either support it only nominally or outright oppose it. That’s quite a change from two decades ago, when they launched a spirited campaign to try to bring it about.

The campaign began in the early 60s, after the release of several studies documenting the disparities between the city’s black and white schools. Blacks marched and picketed and boycotted. On October 22, 1963, 224,000 Chicago public school students–almost every black and a few whites–stayed away from classes in the nation’s first massive school boycott. The boycott’s leaders ran 200 “freedom schools” for boycotting students in churches that day; children attending were told that freedom included “the right for all children to learn together . . . the right to make friends with all different kinds of people: light-skinned, dark-skinned, born in our country and other countries–all . . . Americans.”

Desegregated schools would not only make it harder to shortchange minority schoolchildren, civil rights leaders said, they also would help by spreading the poor kids around in manageable numbers. The problem with ghetto schools was not how black they were but how poor; no school could thrive when it was overwhelmed with impoverished children.

School desegregation, moreover, seemed the most promising tool for repairing society’s racial problems. Mixing black and white children in schools would break down the fears and stereotypes that were racism’s foundation. There’d be conflict at first for sure, but eventually black and white students would learn to get along–and spread that lesson when they left school.

Blacks could kick and scream all day and night for school desegregation in Chicago, but it wouldn’t matter; they weren’t calling the shots. And the whites who were got red-faced and sweaty just thinking about black kids attending their children’s schools. You could have as easily suggested integrated neighborhoods, or mixed marriages.

There wasn’t any plot to keep the schools segregated, Superintendent Benjamin C. Willis maintained; he and the school board just wanted to preserve neighborhood schools. It was a real shame, he said, that preserving neighborhood schools required him to assign thousands of black children to attend schools on double shifts and to squeeze into mobile units (the notorious “Willis Wagons”), while classrooms in white schools not far away sat empty.

A school board member put it bluntly to a television audience in 1965: “Chicago is not yet ready for more integration.”

For five days in October 1965, the commissioner of education in Washington withheld $32 million in federal funds due Chicago schools, charging the city with purposeful racial segregation and discrimination in those schools. It was the first federal attempt to compel school desegregation in a northern city, and it failed miserably. The feds should have known better than to pick their first fight in the north with a heavyweight. Mayor Richard J. Daley expressed his anger directly to President Lyndon Johnson, who had not been informed of the decision to withhold funds. The funds were quickly released, and federal investigators withdrew from Chicago. Civil rights leader Al Raby slammed the “shameless display of naked political power exhibited by Mayor Daley.” But city bigwigs heaped hosannas on their hero. Roman Pucinski, an alderman today but then a congressman, said the mayor had “done the people of the nation a service by standing firm against intolerable federal intervention.”

The force with which the feds were repelled set back federal attempts to compel school desegregation in the north by several years. Led by Pucinski, the House moved to restrict the enforcement authority of the Office of Education in civil rights matters. Southern school districts, too, were encouraged by the Chicago incident; it proved that civil rights enforcement could be whipped politically.

Federal pressure for school desegregation in Chicago after 1965 would be sporadic and feeble until Hizzoner died. In the interim, the state leaned on Chicago’s board, and the board finally responded in 1976 by appointing a committee of parents and civic leaders and asking it to devise a desegregation plan. The committee’s plan called for magnet schools and a voluntary transfer program, and for mandatory busing if the voluntary measures failed to desegregate. The board deleted the mandatory busing provisions, named the program “Access to Excellence,” and submitted it to the state, which approved it.

After the program began, in 1978, the state board of education appointed a committee to study how well Access to Excellence was desegregating Chicago’s schools. The committee found that the program reduced segregation of black students by four-tenths of 1 percent, and cost $30,000 per student integrated. Yet the state did not demand change.

That’s how white officials responded to demands for school desegregation in many parts of the country. The officials knew how their primary constituents felt: white parents greeted mandatory desegregation measures with boycotts and marches more fervent even than those of desegregation’s proponents. So where they could, the officials instituted voluntary plans that satisfied courts or government agencies, even if they hardly changed the makeup of the schools at all. The focus of school desegregation became not what benefited minorities the most, but what perturbed whites the least.

We have to keep the interests of whites in mind, local officials said; if a desegregation plan displeases them too much they’ll flee the schools and leave minority students segregated all over again. In truth, white enrollment in big-city public schools was plunging already; whites had been streaming to the suburbs since the end of World War II, and their birth rate had declined. Studies later would show that mandatory desegregation plans produced little additional white flight from schools.

With Mayor Daley in his grave, federal officials decided it was safe to return to Chicago and again put the squeeze on the schools. In 1980, the Justice Department charged the board with unlawfully segregating black and Hispanic students from whites. The board had drawn attendance-area boundaries and placed temporary and permanent new facilities in such a way as to create the segregated schools, the federal suit maintained. The board also employed a permissive transfer policy that allowed white students to avoid attending schools in which they were a minority, the suit alleged.

In the consent decree between the Justice Department and the board that was signed in September 1980, the board agreed to develop a plan that would “remedy the present effects of past segregation on black and Hispanic students.” But again, the city was to receive only watered-down desegregation. The public-discussion draft of the desegregation plan called for mandatory busing; the outcry from white parents, Mayor Jane Byrne, Governor James Thompson, and other white politicians convinced the board to reject that part of the plan and rely again primarily on magnet schools and voluntary transfers.

Since not much desegregation could be achieved within the city, given the dearth of white students, the consent decree stipulated that the federal government and the city pursue interdistrict remedies.

The Justice Department agreed to examine whether it could compel the state and the suburbs to enter into an interdistrict program with Chicago. But soon after the consent decree was signed, Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s Justice Department decided, to no one’s surprise, against suing the state.

The board noted in its desegregation plan that while suburbs had rejected requests to enter into an interdistrict transfer program with Chicago schools, “the potential value of interdistrict arrangements is so significant that the Board is not willing to accept this rejection of Chicago children. . . . The Board . . . recognizes that court orders may be necessary to secure general cooperation.” But instead of suing, the board has merely supported legislation introduced annually in Springfield that would facilitate an interdistrict program–legislation that routinely dies in committee.

The flimsy desegregation plan and the feigned pursuit of interdistrict remedies by government and board officials provoked no uproar from minority leaders. By the early 80s, the biggest obstacle to school desegregation was not the opposition of whites but the waning support of the minority leaders.

This ebb in enthusiasm came just as studies began to show that where genuine school desegregation had occurred, it was paying off. Most studies to date show some academic achievement gains for minority students in desegregated schools, with the increases more marked for children who enter desegregated schools at early ages. Achievement of white schoolchildren is not affected by desegregation, the vast majority of studies agree. And school desegregation is helping to desegregate society, according to many studies. Minorities who attend desegregated schools are more likely to go on to work in integrated firms and live in integrated neighborhoods. They report feeling more comfortable around whites and having more white friends. Children who attend segregated schools, studies show, tend to remain in the ghetto afterward. And where schools are desegregated throughout a metropolitan area–by making the entire area one school district or by using interdistrict transfers–neighborhoods start to desegregate as well, according to several studies.

But minority leaders by the early 80s were weary of pushing and pleading for minority children to be allowed to go where they weren’t wanted. Some said the whole idea of desegregation was elitist and insulting and racist. They forgot that “the basic argument [for desegregation] was based on class, not race,” Gary Orfield says. “If blacks were in the same social and economic situation as whites, school integration wouldn’t make any difference.”

Self-empowerment had become the motto of blacks; and black educators, among them Harvard professor Ron Edmonds, asserted that minorities should concentrate on replicating those ghetto schools that succeeded in providing quality education. The premise of desegregation–that educating minorities was all but impossible in ghetto schools–served as a convenient excuse for big-city school authorities, Edmonds said. Chicago adopted his theories in its Chicago Effective Schools Project.

And so today, minority leaders ignore desegregation, and instead rally behind plans that promise an improved education within the ghetto. Desegregated schools still are the long-range ideal, some of these leaders say; but the critical condition of today’s minority schools requires immediate surgery. “Integrated education remains as valuable now as ever, and it’s something we need to achieve,” says former boycott leader Al Raby, who is working as a consultant for one of the school reform groups. “But one has to pick priorities for energies.”

Other minority leaders, though, aren’t sure they’d want desegregated schools now if they could have them. Close your eyes and you’d think Hizzoner or Superintendent Willis was talking. “I prefer the neighborhood school,” board vice president William Farrow says. Separate but equal? “That’s right–separate but equal.”

Silas Purnell, chair of the schools program of the local NAACP, is one of the rare minority activists here who believe minorities should still be pressing for school desegregation. There’s nothing advantageous about indigent segregated schools, he says. “If you’re broke and I’m broke and the next guy is broke, and we get together with ten other broke guys, that’s not strength, that’s just collective poverty.” He believes the “separate but equal” advocates “are not political realists. Show me where separate but equal works, and I’m for it. But it will not work. Never has, and I don’t think it ever shall.”

Big-city school boards “are looking at a situation that seems to be unsolvable,” says David Tatel, a Washington DC attorney who has represented several local boards in desegregation suits against states and suburban districts. “They’ve got declining resources and increasing numbers of high-cost minority children to educate. And they’re surrounded by suburban districts which often have the exact opposite characteristics.” Limited to their borders, the central cities “can’t desegregate and can’t get the resources to educate their children,” Tatel says; suing the state “gives them a chance to solve both those problems.”

States have an affirmative duty to convert an unconstitutionally segregated school system to an integrated one, the Supreme Court has held. Thus, lower courts have ordered or presided over settlements that have required states to ante up large sums of desegregation aid–money to be used both for interdistrict programs that help desegregate the central city schools and for compensatory programs for city schools that will remain segregated. Saint Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Louisville, Richmond, Yonkers, and Wilmington, Delaware, are among the cities that have obtained interdistrict programs, aid for compensatory programs, or both, as a result of bringing such suits or threatening to. Saint Louis’s settlement has brought that city’s schools several hundred million dollars from the state of Missouri.

Tatel, a former director of the Office of Civil Rights in the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, has represented boards in Saint Louis, Milwaukee, and Kansas City, and is currently conferring with three other cities that are pondering such suits. Chicago is not one of them. But the Chicago board has in recent years considered suing Illinois for desegregation money, Munoz acknowledges. During Munoz’s term as board president (1984-86), he authorized board attorneys to research such a lawsuit. The suit would maintain that the state was responsible for the segregated Chicago public school system–the system is, after all, a creature of the state–and therefore ought to participate in remedying it. Board attorneys felt they had a winnable case; but Ruth Love, then schools superintendent, advised against bringing suit, arguing that it would hurt the attempts Chicago was making to lobby legislators for more money for the schools. “Almost every year the idea [of suing the state] comes up again,” Munoz says, “and the same argument against it is made–that it would agitate legislators and work in reverse. And therefore it is put on the back burner again.”

If the state lost such a suit, it might just reduce its appropriations to schools by as much as it was ordered to pay, Munoz says. He worries about “negative repercussions” from Springfield. But “does that mean you don’t go forward? Not necessarily,” he says.

While legislators aren’t fond of having to fork over desegregation money to local schools, Tatel says he hasn’t seen evidence of retaliation in other states. Courts often add provisions to their orders prohibiting such retaliation, he says.

The lawsuit the board has contemplated, however, would only seek aid for Chicago’s segregated minority schools, not the establishment of an interdistrict program as well. Why not the interdistrict program? Because no one on the board has given it much thought.

Most board members are not opposed to city-suburban transfer programs so much as they are indifferent to them or uninformed about them. “Interdistrict? The last time I heard that discussed was quite a while ago,” says Frances Davis, chair of the board’s desegregation committee. “If my memory serves me correctly, it was handled in a very, very fleeting manner. I think it should be an agenda item for this committee.”

Says board president Frank Gardner: “Why we haven’t considered it, I don’t know. I suppose we’ve been so concerned about getting our own house in order, we have not thought beyond our backyard. And perhaps if we expand our vision, this would be one of the areas we should consider.”

It ought to be considered quickly, Orfield says. Interdistrict programs promise more than just a long-term increase in racial harmony, he says; they also could improve the futures of bright minority kids who are running into dead ends in their city schools. Orfield is particularly concerned about the “accelerating disconnection between minority high schools and colleges, and between those high schools and the labor market. White, middle-class parents can’t imagine what it would be like to have their children in high schools that didn’t offer any path to college. But that is the actual situation for most blacks and Hispanics in Chicago today. It’s hard to think of any rational justification for keeping those kids confined to city schools that aren’t functioning.”

But minority parents aren’t interested in more busing programs, George Munoz, State Senator Earlean Collins, and other minority leaders say.

Tatel disagrees. The 12,000 Saint Louis children voluntarily riding buses to suburban schools make it “pretty hard to say parents aren’t interested,” he says.

Minority parents in Chicago, too, would take advantage of suburban transfers if they became an option, Orfield says. “I guarantee you, within a year of the time it were available, a lot of people would want to do it. They’d believe their kids would have better opportunities in the suburbs. And they’d be right. They could move their child from a school that scores in the bottom 1 percent on the ACT [American College Test], and where hardly a third of the kids graduate, to a school where everybody graduates and almost everybody goes on to college. That’s an incredibly better setting.”

For years, some minority parents lucky enough to have a middle-class suburban relative have run their own informal interdistrict program: they farm their children out to the relative so they can attend the suburban schools. The kids are more likely to avoid gang recruitment there, and perhaps will get a better education as well. Under an interdistrict program, many minority parents would transfer their children to suburban schools less much for the educational benefits than because “they’re afraid their kids’ll get killed or be junkies if they stay in the city,” Orfield says. “That’s what inner-city parents have to worry about.”

Given the size of the Chicago metropolitan area, minorities in the heart of Chicago might have a pretty long bus ride to a suburban school; but minority parents would find that a small price to pay, Orfield thinks, “if they knew there was something worth going to.”

While minority leaders may have soured on busing, it doesn’t appear that minorities generally have. Blacks still favor busing for racial purposes by two to one, a Harris survey taken in late 1986 showed (Hispanics favored it 58 percent to 39 percent according to the poll; whites opposed it 57 percent to 36 percent).

The complaints always fly before busing begins, but parents of bused children usually give busing high marks. It’s not the parents of bused children who are griping in Chicago today–it’s parents who can’t get their kids in the programs requiring the ride. In the Harris survey, 71 percent of families whose children had been bused said they were “very satisfied” with the experience. Another 24 percent were “partly satisfied”; only 3 percent called the experience unsatisfactory.

Desegregation committee chair Frances Davis is one board member who sees potential benefits in an interdistrict program. “I’ll bet you those students who get an integrated education at a very early age are more able to work with people of all colors. So if we’re talking about really preparing our young people to live in society, this [an interdistrict program] is one of the things we have to look at.”

But she worries that under such a program, few suburban children would transfer to Chicago schools, while the brightest, most motivated minority students would leave Chicago’s schools en masse, thus leaving the inner-city schools even worse off.

And, indeed, interdistrict programs typically are two-way in design but one-way in practice; not many suburban youths transfer to the city schools. Concerns about the cream being skimmed from the city schools are legitimate, David Tatel says, “if all you’re doing is sending kids to the suburbs.” But desegregation suits against states also often win significant aid for city schools, and with those schools improving, Tatel says, “a lot of parents will choose for their kids to stay.”

Segregation ought to be attacked in housing, not the schools, say the Reagan administration and other opponents of school desegregation. But housing patterns have been even more resistant to desegregation schemes than schools, Tatel says. Housing segregation ought to be dealt with as well, he believes, but it can be addressed in school desegregation suits. Wisconsin and New York were required to provide low-income housing aid for minorities to foster integrated neighborhoods as a result of recent school desegregation cases brought by Milwaukee and Yonkers, he says.

The courts, of course, have not always granted local school boards the relief they have sought in desegregation suits. In 1974, the Supreme Court overturned an interdistrict plan ordered by a lower court for metropolitan Detroit in Milliken v. Bradley, a precedent often cited by lower courts that reject interdistrict programs. Milliken, though, was a shaky precedent at best; the vote was 5-4, and one justice in the majority wrote in a separate opinion that interdistrict plans would be proper and necessary under certain circumstances. The Milliken precedent, combined with a conservative federal judiciary, “makes it more difficult to win these cases,” Tatel says. “But they can be won.”

Robert Howard, the Chicago board’s chief desegregation attorney, says he hasn’t fully investigated and would not be able to comment on the legal chances of an interdistrict lawsuit brought by the board.

Politics may be a bigger obstacle than the courts: interdistrict programs may run counter to the self-interests of minority political leaders. Solidly minority voting districts and cities help minority politicians get elected and stay in office; metropolitan desegregation efforts of any sort are threatening. Concerns about dilution of minority political power “come up in every city where an interdistrict program is ultimately pursued,” Tatel says. Perhaps that’s why political leaders are never the early proponents of interdistrict plans, according to Tatel. “In every one of the cities we’ve worked in, the political leaders are not interested in this. They’re not concerned with education–they’ve got other fish to fry. It’s the school board members who eventually take the step.”

Local school boards that eventually bring desegregation suits often are ignorant of the possibilities of interdistrict plans at first, Tatel says; then a local minority organization, often the NAACP, educates the board members.

“Political isolation” is what finally convinces board members to seek an interdistrict remedy, he says; board members see the futility of their efforts to convince legislators from outside the city to help the poor minority schoolchildren within the city. They hope to overcome this isolation by making education more of a metropolitan concern. An interdistrict program, they believe, “will create a stronger political coalition for all the schools in the metropolitan area,” Tatel says. “You can already see this happening in Milwaukee–politically influential white suburban districts are worrying about the quality of education in Milwaukee. That never happened before. The city school system now can participate in a coalition at the state level, which helps in the long run politically.”

Blacks are making virtually no progress in becoming integrated in America’s major metropolitan areas, concludes a study released in December by the Population Research Center at the University of Chicago.

The study compared housing patterns in 60 major cities between 1970 and 1980. While Hispanics and Asians integrated fairly easily into white areas of cities and suburbs, blacks remained almost as segregated in 1980 as they had been in 1970, the study reported. “Race continues to be a fundamental cleavage in American society,” the report concluded; and “it is not race that matters, but black race.”

Our society’s racial problems won’t just disappear, Orfield says; they’re stubborn as grass stains, and about as likely to go away untreated. The schools are still the best place to address them, he believes.

“I’d be the last person to say there aren’t any problems” with interdistrict programs, he says. “It’s not a real easy thing to try to create an integrated education in the middle of a segregated society, with the [minority] kids bringing all their problems with them to the integrated school and then going back home to them every night. But I think there are lots more problems with just letting things go the way they are.”

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall gave a similar view in his dissenting opinion in the 1974 Milliken case. School desegregation “is not and was never expected to be an easy task,” Marshall wrote. “Racial attitudes ingrained in our nation’s childhood and adolescence are not quickly thrown aside in its middle years. . . . In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities–one white, the other black. But it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret. . . . Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Robert Goldman.