HEW Steps In

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In the early 1960s, a combination of events on both the local and national level forced Prince George's County to reevaluate its freedom of choice desegregation plan and draw up a new one. On the local level, many black parents started pressuring the school board to change the freedom of choice plan to one that was more fair to black children. For example, in response to a proposed transfer of black students from Lakeland Junior High School to Mary Bethune Junior High in 1961, 500 black parents signed a letter asking why black students had to specifically ask to be transferred to a predominately white school if it were closer to their home when white students did not have to do so. The county board of education was also pressured by the Maryland state board of education, by the Prince George's Citizens Education Committee, and by the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to change its plan. [17]

In addition to local pressures, events on the national scene started to turn Prince George's County away from the freedom of choice plan. Perhaps the strongest force on the national scene was that of the Supreme Court. The Court had initiated school desegregation with its Brown decision in 1954 and it continued to guide school districts on the way towards integration. With each decision, the Supreme Court decided the way school desegregation in the country would go, and by the 1960s it was clearly moving away from freedom of choice plans. As one scholar wrote:

By the mid-1960s the Supreme Court rejected the use of freedom of choice plans, arguing that these plans were a subterfuge for keeping the races separated. . . .Between 1965 and 1971 the Supreme Court made clear that schools must desegregate and desegregate immediately. [18]

Legislative action was also an important force in leading school systems towards integration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) the power to withhold federal funds from school districts operating on a segregated basis. This became a real threat when the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) allocated substantial federal funding for use by local school districts. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, HEW became a major influence in requiring school districts throughout the South and the border states to desegregate.

HEW first entered the Prince George's County picture in December 1964, when it released broad desegregation guidelines, urging school districts to "implement attendance zones that were `unitary' in nature," instead of being based on race, and supporting the concept of neighborhood schools. In response, Prince George's County revised its policy to one that was, at least on the policy statement level, compliant with HEW guidelines:

  1. School attendance areas shall be established for every school without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.

  2. In establishing attendance areas, there will be no gerrymandering or establishing of other unnatural boundaries. [19]

In practice, however, the policy was not quite as compliant as it appeared on paper. For example, during the 1965-1966 school year Glenarden Woods Elementary School became, under the new unitary attendance zone, an all-black school that was 42 students under capacity, while Dodge Park Elementary, less than a mile away and with a black student enrollment of only 0.1%, was 62 students over capacity. Yet for some reason, the school board did not send students from Dodge Park to Glenarden Woods. [20] This was not an isolated case among the eight schools organized that school year under unitary attendance zones. A study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights discovered that "six of the eight so-called `unitary' schools, for the 1965-66 school year, had classroom vacancies while nearby, predominantly white schools were overcrowded." [21] In establishing the unitary attendance zones, it seems, the board of education used the existing segregation in housing to minimize both desegregation and outcry from HEW. The eight unitary schools were located in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods, allowing the board of education to say that they followed HEW guidelines while still ensuring that most white students attended schools that were 95% or more white. [22] This situation can easily be seen as another attempt by the members of the school board to cover up conscious or unconscious racist tendencies. In any case, it is a clear example of how the existing segregated housing patterns influenced school desegregation.

As the 1960s rolled on, HEW made it clear to the board of education that it would have to do more than just pretend to comply with HEW guidelines. HEW's policy in the late 1960s was shaped by a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education (1966):

In this circuit, therefore, the location of Negro schools with Negro faculties in Negro neighborhoods and white schools in white neighborhoods cannot be described as an unfortunate fortuity. It came into existence as state action and continues to exist as racial gerrymandering made possible by the dual system. [23]

In January 1968, Lloyd Henderson, Education Branch Chief with the Office of Civil Rights of the Office of Education, notified the superintendent that if the school system did not complete a reorganization that "would have required affirmative policies such as new attendance zones and busing to eliminate a number of all-black schools," the system could be subject to "noncompliance proceedings." [24] Noncompliance proceedings carried the threat of a possible cutoff of substantial federal funds if the system was found to be noncompliant with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

To complicate matters even further for Prince George's County, the HEW crackdown came just at a time when large numbers of blacks were moving across the border from the District of Columbia into the county's central corridor. This migration on its own might have helped integration, but it was coupled with a second "white flight." Many whites resided in the county's central corridor, where they had moved during the first white flight in the 1940s and 1950s to escape blacks in the cities; now, whites started to move away from the county's central corridor and into the outlying, predominately white areas. Had the whites remained in the newly black areas, segregated housing patterns might have disappeared. Because they moved into areas that were already mostly white, however, the patterns remained. Fortunately for blacks practices such as blockbusting that had produced much of the segregated housing visible in the 1960s became illegal in 1968 as a result of the Fair Housing Act, but as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted, "[t]he act probably came too late to provide relief from the situation that had developed in Prince George's County." [25] The segregation in housing became very important because, as a result of the HEW guidelines, Prince George's County was turning more and more to the "neighborhood school" concept, in which students attended a nearby school regardless of race. The segregated housing patterns, however, meant that even the bona fide neighborhood schools, filled without regard to race, often had an overwhelming majority of one race. Had the county's housing patterns been non-segregated, the neighborhood schools plan might have worked nicely. but the plan ultimately failed because of the segregated housing patterns. White flight exacerbated the existing problems by further segregating county housing instead of furthering the cause of integrated housing.

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Copyright © 1996 Lisa Cozzens (lisa@www.watson.org ). Please read this before you email me!
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