Implementation of School Desegregation.

In the after-math of Green, the various Courts of Appeals held inadequate an increasing number of school board plans based on “freedom of choice,” on zoning which followed traditional residential patterns, or on some combination of the two.1691 The Supreme Court’s next opportunity to speak on the subject came when HEW sought to withdraw desegregation plans it had submitted at court request and asked for a postponement of a court-imposed deadline, which was reluctantly granted by the Fifth Circuit. The Court unanimously reversed and announced that “continued operation of segregated schools under a standard of allowing ‘all deliberate speed’ for desegregation is no longer constitutionally permissible. Under explicit holdings of this Court the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools.”1692

In the October 1970 Term the Court in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education1693 undertook to elaborate the requirements for achieving a unitary school system and delineating the methods which could or must be used to achieve it, and at the same time struck down state inhibitions on the process.1694 The opinion in Swann emphasized that the goal since Brown was the dismantling of an officially imposed dual school system. “Independent of student assignment, where it is possible to identify a ‘white school’ or a ‘Negro school’ simply by reference to the racial composition of teachers and staff, the quality of school buildings and equipment, or the organization of sports activities, a prima facie case of violation of substantive constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause is shown.”1695 Although “the existence of some small number of one-race, or virtually one-race, schools within a district is not in and of itself the mark of a system that still practices segregation by law,” any such situation must be closely scrutinized by the lower courts, and school officials have a heavy burden to prove that the situation is not the result of state-fostered segregation. Any desegregation plan that contemplates such a situation must before a court accepts it be shown not to be affected by present or past discriminatory action on the part of state and local officials.1696 When a federal court has to develop a remedial desegregation plan, it must start with an appreciation of the mathematics of the racial composition of the school district population; its plan may rely to some extent on mathematical ratios but it should exercise care that this use is only a starting point.1697

Because current attendance patterns may be attributable to past discriminatory actions in site selection and location of school buildings, the Court in Swann determined that it is permissible, and may be required, to resort to altering of attendance boundaries and grouping or pairing schools in noncontiguous fashion in order to promote desegregation and undo past official action; in this remedial process, conscious assignment of students and drawing of boundaries on the basis of race is permissible.1698 Transportation of students— busing—is a permissible tool of educational and desegregation policy, inasmuch as a neighborhood attendance policy may be inadequate due to past discrimination. The soundness of any busing plan must be weighed on the basis of many factors, including the age of the students; when the time or distance of travel is so great as to risk the health of children or significantly impinge on the educational process, the weight shifts.1699 Finally, the Court indicated, once a unitary system has been established, no affirmative obligation rests on school boards to adjust attendance year by year to reflect changes in composition of neighborhoods so long as the change is solely attributable to private action.1700


Hall v. St. Helena Parish School Bd., 417 F.2d 801 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 396 U.S. 904 (1969); Henry v. Clarksdale Mun. Separate School Dist., 409 F.2d 682 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 396 U.S. 940 (1969); Brewer v. School Bd. of City of Norfolk, 397 F.2d 37 (4th Cir. 1968); Clark v. Board of Educ. of City of Little Rock, 426 F.2d 1035 (8th Cir. 1970). back
Alexander v. Holmes County Bd. of Educ., 396 U.S. 19, 20 (1969). The Court summarily reiterated its point several times in the Term. Carter v. West Feliciana Parish School Board, 396 U.S. 290 (1970); Northcross v. Board of Educ. of Memphis, 397 U.S. 232 (1970); Dowell v. Board of Educ. of Oklahoma City, 396 U.S. 269 (1969). back
402 U.S. 1 (1971); see also Davis v. Board of School Comm’rs of Mobile County, 402 U.S. 33 (1971). back
McDaniel v. Barresi, 402 U.S. 39 (1971); North Carolina State Bd. of Educ. v. Swann, 402 U.S. 43 (1971). back
402 U.S. at 18. back
402 U.S. at 25–27. back
402 U.S. at 22–25. back
402 U.S. at 27–29. back
402 U.S. at 29–31. back
402 U.S. at 31–32. In Pasadena City Bd. of Educ. v. Spangler, 427 U.S. 424 (1976), the Court held that after a school board has complied with a judicially-imposed desegregation plan in student assignments and thus undone the existing segregation, it is beyond the district court’s power to order it subsequently to implement a new plan to undo the segregative effects of shifting residential patterns. The Court agreed with the dissenters, Justices Marshall and Brennan, id. at 436, 441, that the school board had not complied in other respects, such as in staff hiring and promotion, but it thought that was irrelevant to the issue of neutral student assignments. back