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Judge Orders Equal Opportunity

A PENNSYLVANIA judge has ruled that 40 years after the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Philadelphia public schools are still separate and still unequal.

In a scathing critique of city schools, Commonwealth Judge Doris Smith ruled on Feb. 4 that the city has failed to desegregate its schools or provide ``equal educational opportunity'' to students. ``The record amply demonstrates,'' Ms. Smith wrote, ``that the school district has not provided to black and Hispanic students the best qualified and most experienced teachers, equal facilities, and plants... [or] equal allocation of resources.''

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Smith, who is black, granted a request of a parents' group coalition to form a team of educational experts that would develop a court-ordered plan to drastically reform the city's schools.

In what the parents' groups are calling a major precedent, Smith based much of her ruling on a wide disparity in academic achievement scores between races, and she said unequal academic achievement was evidence of unequal opportunity for minorities.``I think this is now the most important education case in the country,'' said Michael Churchill, the attorney representing the parents' groups. ``It raises directly how urban school districts are going to make education work for minority and poor students.''

Various academic achievement measures at the city's handful of desegregated schools with white students are far higher than achievement measures at segregated schools that are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.

The school district has agreed to work with a court-mandated panel of experts but is reserving its right to appeal Smith's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

The district, which has seen state and federal aid drop steadily, creating painful cuts last year, argued that expecting schools to overcome minority poverty levels that reduce academic achievement is unrealistic unless funding is increased.

School officials also argued in court that it has become mathematically impossible to fully desegregate the city's schools because the system has so few white students left in it. About 63 percent of the city's 201,000 public school students are African-American, 22 percent are white, 10 percent are Hispanic, and 5 percent are Asian.

``White flight from the city and segregated housing patterns have constructively created a separate but equal system,'' said city Board of Education President Rotan Lee, who is black. ``We're left in this situation by default, as opposed to some design or scheme.''

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In 1992, another court-appointed panel recommended mandatory busing within the city to desegregate the schools. The proposal was opposed by the Board of Education, met virulent opposition from whites, and received little support from public officials. Opponents called mandatory busing ineffective and outdated.

The school district asked Smith to force the state to pay for more desegregation efforts and to establish a metropolitan school district. The metropolitan-district proposal received intense opposition from the predominantly white suburbs.

Smith ended up ruling against establishing mandatory busing, requiring the state to pay for more desegregation efforts, and forming a metropolitian school district last spring.

``Philadelphia represents a situation where you're going to remain separate [because there aren't enough white students],'' Mr. Churchill said. ``The question is whether you're now going to at least try and make [the schools] equal.''

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