School Diversity Case Back In Court

Lori Olszewski, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 9

The U.S. Justice Department is taking Chicago Public Schools back to court Tuesday, demanding that administrators comply with a long-standing desegregation agreement by offering black and Hispanic students a chance to transfer into white neighborhood schools.

Although Chicago’s white student population has dwindled to less than 10 percent of the district’s enrollment, the school system still has 25 neighborhood schools that are more than half white, according to court documents.

These schools, concentrated in the northwest corner of the city and in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood on the Far Southwest Side, mirror the segregation evident in the city’s housing patterns.

Chicago school officials say they do not have room in the largely white schools for more students of any race.

But federal attorneys say Chicago has allowed hundreds of white students from outside neighborhood attendance zones to transfer into those schools in the past. Those white transfers used up seats that should have been offered to black and Hispanic students to enhance integration, they said.

Justice Department officials are asking the federal court on Tuesday to order Chicago to provide such transfers this year and in 2005-06.

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Charles P. Kocoras agreed to a plan that could end federal oversight of Chicago on desegregation matters. Still, for the next two years, Chicago must offer the voluntary transfers as it has since 1982, federal attorneys said.

“While the CPS contends that there is no space available at the over 50 percent white schools, this argument rings hollow; these schools somehow are managing to make space available for 801 white open-enrollment transfers,” federal civil rights attorneys said in court documents.

For the first time, Chicago school officials have acknowledged some of those white students likely should not have been allowed to transfer.

“But most of them got in properly, and we have bent over backwards to try to explain that,” said Sherri Thornton, the public schools’ associate general counsel. “The students were in special education or other special programs or from schools with controlled enrollment,” meaning overcrowded schools that don’t admit new students.

This year, Chicago school officials said three of the 25 white schools had space—a total of 83 seats. Unlike in previous years, those spaces were offered only to students qualified to transfer under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law allows students from poorly performing schools to move to so-called better schools. Some of the No Child Left Behind students chose not to move, which leaves a handful of seats open, school officials said. Still, administrators said they don’t see any benefit in moving students into new schools now that a good portion of the school year is over.

“Sure, mid-year transfers happen, but we are saying it is educationally unsound to have a policy that would call for that,” Thornton said.

Federal attorneys also are challenging how Chicago is spending money earmarked for desegregation.

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