THE US Supreme Court last week unanimously gave school districts greater leeway to challenge desegregation orders. Does this mean the court is abandoning the principles laid down in its landmark 1954 case, Brown vs. Board of Education?
Not necessarily. The 1954 ruling emphasized the "feeling of inferiority" imposed on black children by officially segregated schools, and the words emanating from the high court last week showed a continuing awareness of the importance of justice in education. But today's conservative-leaning court is clearly less inclined to see all or mostly black schools, in themselves, as grounds for a lawsuit.
Writing the majority opinion for a splintered court, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that schools which are resegregated because of changing residence patterns don't require the kinds of remedies applied where racial separation was state-sanctioned.
Even on that point, however, the court held multiple views. Three justices joined in a separate opinion calling for a closer look at what lies behind the continued racial split in the classrooms of De Kalb County, Ga.
Instead of rallying to the view that official segregation is long past and court-ordered desegregation interferes with local control, the court acted cautiously. Desegregation plans could be dismantled piece by piece, it said, if "good faith" compliance was proven in specific areas.
The appeals court, whose ruling the high court overturned, had demanded full compliance in all areas, from student assignments to racial makeup of the faculty, over a period of years.
Dozens of school districts may seize on the court's ruling to explore their own chances of winning release from portions of their desegregation plans. But last week's decision gave little assurance of easy victories for those who would try to overturn desegregation plans by arguing that housing patterns, not official policy, underlie racially unbalanced schools.
"Separate but equal" has a different implication today than it had 38 years ago, when the court handed down the Brown decision. Segregation was then a fact of life, and "equal" was a well-exposed myth.
Yet equality is still a myth to countless youngsters in struggling schools in inner cities and poor districts elsewhere.
Absolute racial balance in public schools may elude public policy. But genuine equality of opportunity, through well-equipped and well-staffed schools, remains a right of every American child. Legislatures and the courts have plenty of work ahead in upholding that right.