Court Action Ends 26-Year L.A. School Desegregation Case

Times Education Writer

Ending an often bitter 26-year legal battle, a federal judge in Los Angeles on Monday dismissed the last remaining defendant in a class-action lawsuit to desegregate the Los Angeles Unified School District.

U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima dropped the state Department of Education and Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig from the suit at the request of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which said it could not afford to continue pressing the case.

The state had become the sole defendant in January, when Tashima dismissed the Los Angeles school district from the case.

Because the NAACP agreed to the dismissal, it cannot appeal the decision. Moreover, it is effectively barred from legally renewing its charges that the district caused the intentional segregation of black students from 1963, when the original desegregation suit was filed, to the present.


But the district still faces allegations of unequal treatment of minority students in a suit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other public-interest law firms in 1986.

And the federal court action does not preclude the NAACP from suing the district for discriminating against ethnic minority students if it finds evidence of such discrimination in the future.

The dismissal came as the Los Angeles Board of Education was scheduled to vote on a massive plan to raise achievement levels of minority students. The proposed plan is not related to the NAACP suit, but addresses some of the same issues and acknowledges that “institutional racism” contributes to inferior education for minorities.

Some observers said they were doubtful that any civil rights organization could afford the monumental costs of litigating a major school desegregation lawsuit in the future.


Gary Orfield, a University of Chicago desegregation expert, said the end of the Los Angeles desegregation case focuses attention on the “special problems in the very largest cities--Chicago, New York and Los Angeles--that have patterns of segregation no one can afford to litigate. It would cost so many millions of dollars, beyond the capacity of any minority group in the country to pay . . . so we may have a situation where justice exists, but no one can afford to obtain it.”

Learned the Hard Way

Said Joseph H. Duff, an NAACP lawyer who recently was elected president of the organization’s Los Angeles branch: “That is essentially the lesson we learned--the hard way.”

Duff would not comment on the long-term impact of the judge’s decision to end the protracted lawsuit, but said he is keenly disappointed by it.

“We clearly have not gained any desegregation in the district,” he said.

Duff said the NAACP lacks the manpower and the money to adequately research the case, which would have involved reviewing thousands of pages of documents produced by the district and the state. He said he does not know how much the group has spent on the lawsuit. But school district officials estimate district expenses at more than $4 million since 1963.

“The NAACP will be working politically” to try to force changes in the Los Angeles school district that will improve education for minorities, particularly for black youngsters, Duff added.

Deputy Atty. Gen. G. R. Overton, representing the state, said Monday that “this case couldn’t have been brought successfully even eight years ago” because of demographic shifts in the district toward a majority of non-Anglo students and because of the hardships posed by the long commutes many children would have had to endure if mandatory busing was ordered.


Not Enough Anglos

In the mid-1960s, the school district was more than 55% Anglo. Today, Anglo youngsters account for 15.8% of the total enrollment of 595,000 students. Fifty-nine percent are Latino, 16.7% are black, 6.4% are Asian and Pacific Islander, 1.9% are Filipino and 0.2% are American Indian.

The NAACP filed its original desegregation case on behalf of the district’s black students in 1963 in Los Angeles Superior Court. That suit led to nearly three combative years of court-ordered busing, which ended after voters approved Proposition 1 in 1979, an initiative that barred state courts from ordering busing as a remedy for segregation.

The civil rights group refiled the case in federal court in 1981, again alleging that the district has unlawfully discriminated against black students through policies and actions dating back to 1969.

School district officials say, however, that the district’s voluntary desegregation efforts have achieved as much integration as possible in a district with fewer than 100,000 white students.

The district spends about $260 million a year on integration programs, including voluntary busing--chiefly of black students to predominantly Anglo schools--and magnet schools, which offer specialized or accelerated learning to about 25,000 of the district’s 595,000 students.

Programs in Place

“We’ve got a lot of programs in place that are helping minority kids right now,” said Peter W. James, a lawyer with McCutchen, Black, Verleger & Shea, which represented the district in the case.


Last June, NAACP officials were hopeful that they could craft a settlement with the district that would create new educational programs for minority youngsters that would begin to reverse years of academic failure. Among the efforts the civil rights group had envisioned were an expansion of the district’s “10 Schools Program,” in which 10 of the district’s lowest achieving black schools were reorganized and given special aid, and reducing class sizes in predominantly black and Latino schools to a maximum of 18 students each. The district estimated that the new programs would cost in excess of $80 million.

The district relies heavily on the state to cover the costs of integration. But late last year the state said it would not pay for the proposed programs, and settlement efforts crumbled.

Duff was critical of the 10-year plan for ending low achievement that was to be addressed by the school board Monday. The plan calls for a number of costly changes, such as smaller classes in kindergarten through second grades and more pre-kindergarten programs. But Duff said it failed to adequately focus on the specific needs of black youngsters.

“In this district, the achievement problem is essentially a black problem, and until they deal with that, the other problems are not going to get solved.”

The NAACP lawyer acknowledged that the desegregation battles produced some benefits for minority children, noting that the district’s magnet and voluntary busing programs resulted in “an opening up of white schools to minority children.” But overall, he said, the solutions offered by the district “haven’t matched the problems.”

Times staff writer Roxane Arnold contributed to this article.

THE DESEGREGATION CASE Aug. 1, 1963--Original complaint filed by parents of Mary Ellen Crawford and several others, under the co-sponsorship of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, was brought against the Los Angeles City Board of Education as a class action on behalf of “all Negro and Mexican-American pupils.”

Oct. 28, 1967--Trial sessions begin.

May 2, 1969--Trial sessions end.

Feb. 11, 1979--Superior Court Judge Alfred Gitelson rules that the board operates segregated schools, and he gives initial order to integrate.

May 18, 1970--Board files notices of appeal.

March 10, 1975--Court of Appeal rules in favor of board.

July 1, 1975--State Supreme Court agrees to hear ACLU appeal.

June 28, 1976--State Supreme Court upholds Judge Gitelson’s ruling but reverses a portion of the initial judgment that defined desegregation in terms of specific racial/ethnic percentages. The board is required by the latest ruling to take reasonable and feasible steps to alleviate harm caused by segregation, and to demonstrate meaningful progress in that task.

March 18, 1977--Proposed integration plan submitted to Superior Court.

March 23, 1977--Hearings on integration plan begin.

Feb. 7, 1978--Judge Paul Egly issues order approving implementation of district plan as first step toward desegregation.

May 19, 1980--Egly calls for expansion of mandatory reassignments for Grades 1 to 9 in September, 1989, and 1 to 12 by 1983.

Dec. 19, 1980--Court of Appeal upholds Proposition 1, which was approved by California voters to stop mandatory integration.

March 16, 1981--Board votes to end mandatory busing program as soon as possible.

April 20, 1981--Board orders return of 7,300 students to neighborhood schools as three years of mandatory busing end.

Sept. 10, 1981--Judge Robert B. Lopez approves implementation of board’s all-voluntary desegregation plan for the two-year period of September, 1981, to June, 1983.

Oct. 21, 1985--U.S. Supreme Court rejects an appeal from the Los Angeles Unified School District to squelch the NAACP suit, allowing the lawsuit to proceed in federal district court.

June 20, 1988--Acting on the Los Angeles school district’s motion, U.S. District Court grants conditional dismissal of the case and allows the district and the NAACP 60 days to work out a settlement. The state Board of Education and state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig remain as defendants.

Jan. 9, 1989--U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima dismisses the Los Angeles Unified School District as a defendant, after settlement talks break down.

March 27, 1989--Tashima dismisses the state Department of Education, the remaining defendant in the case.