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Earlier this year, the Department of Justice halted its monitoring of the Phoenix Elementary School District, which had been under a voluntary desegregation agreement with the government.

And then, in August, Federal Court Judge Carl Muecke, the custodian of Phoenix Union under the court order, ordered an end to mandatory desegregation at Phoenix Union, seemingly from out of nowhere. In his order, Muecke said that Justice Department standards had been met.

Governor Fife Symington didn't miss a beat. Not only has he called for the end of mandatory desegregation, he asked the Constitutional Defense Council to fight it in court. Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham told parents they could send their children to schools outside the district, despite that such an action might violate provisions of the federal order.

Objections to Meucke's decision were filed by the Justice Department, the school district and the plaintiffs who brought the original civil rights case. Their arguments will be resurrected in court this fall.

"The school district should not give up on its commitment or efforts to try to have an integrated district," says Joe Eddie Lopez, a Phoenix Union school board member and one of the Hispanic community leaders behind the 1982 lawsuit.

"It's stupid that our governor would propose to allow a segregated district in the middle of Phoenix."
History has shown that segregation didn't work, because separate schools were certainly not equal. And, in more than a decade in the largest high school district in Phoenix, forced integration didn't bring minority students a good education, either.

But no one seems to have the next better idea--although privatization, charter schools and other programs that take public education out of the hands of the local school district are quickly moving to fill that slot.

In the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the United States Supreme Court effectively ended the notion of segregated schools. The decision reversed the court's position of 58 years earlier, in which, in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, it found that "separate but equal" was lawful under the Constitution.

In his opinion in the Brown case, then-chief justice Earl Warren noted: "Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government . . . [education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.

". . . In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
But despite Warren's apparent emphasis on education, the resulting enforcement and the public schools focused more on the "equal" than on the "education." School desegregation is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, not the Department of Education, and it's about counting bodies, not test scores.

Throughout history, predominantly minority schools were not on a par with those serving Anglo children. Conventional wisdom, therefore, has been that minority students should share the same classroom with Anglo students in order to have an equal chance.

But schools weren't responsible for redlining, for employment and housing discrimination or for many of the other roadblocks that minorities would continue to face long after desegregation became the law of the land. The enforcement of integrated schools was, in essence, an attempt at solving a multitude of societal sins through the school system.

When it became the law of the land, through federal court orders, desegregation took precedence over everything else, including academic achievement.

Students do not attend the school in which they are most likely to excel, they attend the school that most needs their race or ethnicity to achieve the district's integration goals.

For a while, the nation's urban schools were busing children to get the mandated mix. It didn't work. Parents objected to their children being hauled away every day like prisoners on their way to work camp. Low-income parents especially were unable to get to their children's school. Kids felt like they didn't belong. Neighborhood people thought they were under siege when inner-city kids arrived.

Busing was replaced by a more expensive and gentler idea in the 1980s: the magnet program, the method of choice for Phoenix Union. Magnet schools are a marketing ploy to get Anglo children to attend predominantly minority schools because of a specialty program not offered elsewhere.

Like its predecessor, the magnet program desegregated the schools. But kids didn't get a better education.

In the late 1960s, Phoenix Union was sued over its boundaries. A lot of students who were supposed to be attending Phoenix Union High School were going to other, predominantly Anglo schools. Minorities wanted the same chance. They got it in court. The district adopted an open enrollment policy that allowed students to attend school wherever they wished within the district.

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Lisa Davis