The Supreme Court said Tuesday that school systems now can be declared legally integrated in piecemeal fashion, clearing the way for an end to forced busing in some school districts where student integration has been achieved but other aspects of a judge's order remain unmet.
The court, in its second major school desegregation ruling in 14 months, also said a school district need not remedy demographic changes beyond its control that return some schools to predominantly one-race status.By an 8-0 vote, the court gave its clearest indication since outlawing mandated school segregation in 1954 as to specifically when court-ordered busing and other integration measures can cease.
On Jan. 15, 1991, the justices ruled 5-3 that court-ordered busing in formerly segregated school districts could end once all "practicable" steps to eliminate the remnants of segregation had been taken.
The court in that case set a limit on federal court oversight of a previously segregated school system once it had been declared "unitary" - or integrated - but did not say when that is reached.
But in its decision Tuesday involving Georgia's largest school system, the court for the first time said integration can be achieved piece by piece.
The DeKalb County, Ga., school board had asked the court to declare that it could be removed from a judge's oversight with respect to student enrollment decisions, even though other critical aspects of the school system's operations, including faculty racial makeup, have not achieved integration.
The court reversed a ruling of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and sided with both DeKalb County and the Bush administration, but sent the case back to a lower court to decide how its ruling should be applied in this case.
While DeKalb County does not have forced busing, Tuesday's ruling could provide many school districts that do with a way to end it prior to achieving all aspects of a judge's desegregation order.
Federal courts continue to oversee desegregation orders in more than 470 school districts, mostly in the South and Southwest.
"A federal court in a school desegregation case has the discretion to order an incremental or partial withdrawal of its supervision and control," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.
"This discretion derives both from the constitutional authority which justified its intervention in the first instance and its ultimate objectives in formulating the decree."
Justice Clarence Thomas was not on the court when the case was argued Oct. 7, and took no part in the decision.