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special to the national law journal A texas judge has ended a 33-year-old school desegregation case in Dallas, adding to the list of large American cities that have recently gained freedom from court-supervised desegregation efforts. According to attorneys handling the cases and educational experts tracking desegregation plans nationwide, courts across the country are declaring more and more large urban districts “unitary,” which means they are released from federal supervision. School districts that have recently gained such status include Dallas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Stockton, Calif. And districts in Kansas City, Mo., and suburban Pittsburgh are currently fighting for unitary status and expect to get it this summer. “There’s a lot of big cases coming to an end now,” said Harvard researcher Gary Orfield, co-author of the ongoing Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which tracks school desegregation. “We’re going back to a kind of Plessy separate-but-equal world. I blame the courts. Because the courts are responsible for the resegregation of the South.” Segregation-free? Orfield’s comments come on the heels of a June 5 ruling in Texas in which a federal judge ended a decades-long desegregation order against the Dallas Independent School District. In a 40-page ruling, the judge wrote that segregation “no longer exists” in the Dallas schools, and that it’s “a good urban school district-better than is generally recognized-and is steadily improving.” The Dallas court order stemmed from a 1970 lawsuit filed by Sam Tasby, a parent whose son had to take a bus to the all-black schools in west Dallas when there were some nearby white schools that he was not allowed to attend. The suit called for the district to comply with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools. Tasby v. Moses, No. 3:70-CV-4211-H (N.D. Texas). Attorney Marcos Ronquillo, the district’s lead attorney, said his key legal argument in gaining unitary status was simple: proving that the district had fulfilled all requirements of the court order. “Heck, all the parties got together and went before the judge and said, ‘We are in compliance,’ ” said Ronquillo of Dallas’ Godwin Gruber. “ All the parties agreed that a tremendous amount of progress has been made over the years.” Ronquillo said improvements include the addition of 16 learning centers, an expanded bilingual program for 53,000 students and eight magnet schools. Furthermore, Ronquillo said, the demographics have changed. In 1970, 33% of the student population was black, 36% was white and 7% was Hispanic. Today, 7% is white, 56% is Hispanic and 32% is black. According to the Justice Department, 375 U.S. school districts are under federal court-ordered desegregation plans. The office has no other data on the subject, but educators monitoring the issue say that in recent years a growing number of school districts, particularly larger ones, have dumped their projects after winning unitary status in court. A Jan. 16 Civil Rights Project report said “Many of the nation’s most successful plans are being dismantled by federal court decisions as the courts have been changed from being on the leading edge of desegregation activity to being its greatest obstacle.” But lawyers representing school districts argue that courts should release some districts from their grip, especially if they’ve met their legal obligations to eradicate racism. “The bottom line comes down to equal opportunity,” said Patrick Clair, who is seeking unitary status for the Woodland Hills School District in suburban Pittsburgh. “What is the structure of the district and does it provide that opportunity to all its students?” Hoots v. Pennsylvania, No. 71-538 (W.D. Pa.). Clair of Pittsburgh’s Goehring Rutter & Boehm is optimistic he’ll get it soon. He said a judge in 2000 had largely removed the Woodland Hills School District from federal oversight, but didn’t set it entirely free due to a math system criticized for keeping black students in lower-level courses. Clair said that the problem has ended, so the district, whose case is now 32 years old, deserves freedom. Attorney Kathy Walter-Mack, counsel for the Kansas City, Mo., school district, where a 26-year-old desegregation case has gone before the Supreme Court three times, also expects closure soon. Jenkins v. Missouri, No. 770420 (W.D. Mo.). Final arguments in the Kansas City unitary-status case were made on June 5. Mack said she expects the district will win full status by the end of August. Baldas’ e-mail address is [email protected].

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