Will Boston Schools Ever Desegregate?

A note on the author Michael Bernick '74 gave a seminar at the Institute of Politics this Fall entitled Racial Integration in the Schools.")

KEVIN McCLUSKEY grew up in Columbia Point in the early sixties when the Point was racially mixed. For six years he attended Dever Elementary School and he knows that white and black children can attend the same school without conflict. Last year while serving as a high school representative on the Boston School Committee Kevin came to know why most schools in Boston remain racially segregated. "The members of the School Committee are, above all interested in their political futures." Kevin explains, and it has been politically expedient in Boston to oppose school integration.

For the past seven years, in fact, the Boston School Committee has been making political hay out of race relations. Through legal manuvering the School Committee has managed to resist integration while politically issuing statements urging the repeal of the Racial Imbalance Act. Yet recent developments in the state court could bring the Committee's long resistance to an end.

The State Superior Court is the site of a suit brought by the State Board of Education against the School Committee over violation of the state Racial Imbalance Act (RIA). In November the state introduced an integration plan which is now under consideration by the court. The plan would rearrange Boston school districts by next September and drastically reduce the number of segregated schools.

The RIA was passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 1965. The act does not recognize Chicanos, Puerto Ricans or Orientals as minorities, but regards every child as either black or white. A school is racially imbalanced and in violation of the law if it is more than 50 per cent non-white; a school that is 100 per cent white is considered racially balanced.

When the act was passed in 1965, Boston had 46 imbalanced schools. Though the School Committee was required by the RIA to submit plans to correct the imbalance, it responded with token programs. Today Boston has 65 imbalanced schools and half its 200-odd schools are either 90 per cent white or 90 per cent black. Out of frustration parents in the black community organized two voluntary small-scale programs to bus children to empty seats in nearby white schools.

IN 1971 the $8 million Joseph Lee Elementary School--complete with a community pool and drama center--opened in Roxbury. In order to receive state construction aid, a school must be in compliance with the RIA when it opens. The Boston School Committee promised the state that the Lee school would be balanced. However, in the face of protests by white parents whose children were redistricted into the school, the Committee backed down and the school opened with 1035 blacks and 224 whites.

After six years trying to coerce the School Committee into integrating the schools, the state was fed up. This broken promise was the last straw. The state froze $52 million in state funds to the Boston Schools. The School Committee sued to release the money and the state filed a countersuit charging Boston with not complying with the RIA.

The trial was held in late August. On September 27 Superior Court Judge Robert Sullivan set down his ruling. He released the $52 million but at the same time called for a plan that would racially balance the entire district by September 1973.

"One white mother whose son had been beaten up twice in the school restroom said, 'Integration has made my son a racial bigot.'"

The School Committee responded on November 6 by submitting a "non-plan," a proposal which contained nothing significantly different from its past plans. Three days later the Board predictably rejected it and submitted its own plan on November 16.

The Massachusetts State Guidelines for school integration were set down by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the 1971 Springfield Case. The Court ruled that no student may be bused out of his school district without his parent's consent. The court noted: "It would be possible to nullify the restriction simply by establishing gerrymandered or excessively large districts."

Thus, it concluded that a school committee may redraw districts, including several neighborhoods and more than one school within one district, but that it must not draw districts that are large and gerrymandered. It did not specify the maximum size of a district, but suggested that the state draw up criteria. Shortly afterward, the state set down 3 1/2 miles as the maximum distance any high school student (9-12 grades) could travel, three miles for intermediate (grades 6-8) students, and two miles for elementary (kindergarten-fifth grade) students.

The state plan seemingly meets these standards. It redistricts the Boston schools into 30 elementary and seven intermediate districts, based on the state district size standards. However, two elementary districts presently exceed the standards. Each of the districts is racially balanced except for seven elementary districts in the middle of Roxbury. These, due to their location, could not be mixed with predominantly white schools.

No student is to be bused outside his district. The city, however, has a law providing for free transportation for any student who lives further than one mile from his school. Therefore, under the plan, some students have the opportunity, but no student will be required to be bused.