Out of America: Blacks give low marks to busing

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ST LOUIS - To the visitor, it sounds akin to heresy, the betrayal of all that was fought for. The first-ever black mayor of one of America's most racially divided cities is sitting in his vast, softly lit office, half a mile or so from the Mississippi waterfront. Calmly he explains why he wants to scrap a legendary achievement of America's epic struggle for civil rights: the busing of black students to white schools to implement the Supreme Court ruling of almost 40 years ago aimed at desegregating the US school system.

But Freeman Bosley Jr is unrepentant. At 39, he belongs to a new generation of black politicians, not even alive on that May day in 1954 when, in its historic Brown v Board of Education decision, the nine Court justices unanimously concluded that the doctrine of 'separate but equal' schooling for the two races was a hollow sham.

It took nearly three decades for a federal court to force compliance here. But since 1982, the state of Missouri has spent dollars 1bn (pounds 670m) on the city, including the daily transfer of 14,000 black pupils to white schools in suburban St Louis County. Statistically it adds up to the largest, most expensive desegregation programme in the country. But what gains, Mayor Bosley asks, has busing really brought? And at what price?

Out of 50 public schools in the city, 47 are still all-black, starved of resources now spent on officially desegregated schools. Tests, he claims, show no measurable scholastic improvement for children who are bused.

'We're losing some of our best young minds to the suburbs; we're never going to trust our own schools and our own neighbourhoods as long as we keep sending our kids off to the suburbs every morning.' Far better, he says, to spend the money on providing good schools where people actually live, to help restore a sense of community and identity to the battered inner cities.

But for all his self-assurance and political acumen, Mr Bosley is treading on perilous ground. In its late 19th-century heyday this old river metropolis was the gateway to the American West, the geographic hub of a continent. But a tidy Germanic facade always masked one of the most segregated cities in the country. Although nearly half its population is black, until Mr Bosley was elected early this year St Louis had never had a black mayor.

The achievement of the past 11 years has been colossal. A dollars 355m school improvement project is three-quarters complete; the number of black children who travel each day to schools outside the city limits is not far short of the stipulated target of 16,000. New 'magnet schools' designed to attract blacks and whites alike are thriving; their pupil-teacher ratio is close to the required 20 to 1, their teaching staffs are more or less fully integrated. And all this is, technically, on a 'voluntary' basis, whereby the white schools have co-operated without a court order forcing them to do so. 'We're really satisfied with what's been done,' said Eddie Davis, president of the St Louis Board of Education.

So why not proclaim victory, declare that St Louis has attained the 'unitary' education system demanded by the courts and end the formal desegregation programme? For one thing, says Mr Davis, the conditions imposed in 1982 will not be fully met until 1995 at the earliest.

But an older generation of blacks has a deeper fear: that to end mandatory desegregation would merely play into the hands of a white-dominated state government, at heart still racist. Missouri's attorney-general has already applied for the court order to be lifted, saying it has done more than enough. De facto if not de jure, 'separate but equal' would again become education's guiding principle. By suggesting that blacks, too, are fed up with desegregation, Mr Bosley risks giving aid and comfort to the very enemies of civil rights.