TUCSON -- Looking back at the school desegregation case he took as a young lawyer, Rubin Salter Jr. sees a pile of wasted money and squandered opportunities. After almost four decades in court and nearly $1 billion in public spending, little has changed for the black children whose right to a good education he had labored to defend.
They are still among the lowest-performing students in the Tucson Unified School District, still among the most likely to be suspended or to be assigned to special-education programs and still among the least likely to join groups for gifted students. They are, as Mr. Salter put it, "still getting the short end of the stick."
A federal judge approved a plan on Wednesday intended to lift a longstanding desegregation order that has served as a reason and an excuse for a lot that has gone wrong in the district over the past decades: shrinking enrollment, sliding graduation rates and insistent dropout rates.
After all these years, Mr. Salter, whose family left Mississippi in the 1950s to escape segregation, said he no longer harbors hope for integration. One reason is that the district, overwhelmingly white when he began working on the case in 1974, is now largely made up of Latino students, who are also a party in the litigation and perform just as poorly as their black counterparts. Another is that parameters set long ago by the Supreme Court prevent the busing of students beyond a school district's boundaries as a remedy for segregation.
Arizona's generous open-enrollment policy also poses challenges. Because children are free to go to school wherever they like, there is nothing that Tucson can do to keep its white students from leaving.
"Except," said Mr. Salter, 76, leaning over his desk as if to emphasize his message, "for making its schools better."
At its core, the plan, a sweeping push to bolster the standing of minority students at Tucson Unified, tackles many of the same issues that are common in urban school districts across the country.
Gary Orfield, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-director of its Civil Rights Project, said the Tucson experience offered a good opportunity to "force people to take a new look at what can be done in cities that face profound challenges."
The case also presents at least one cautionary note. In a state that has one of the most comprehensive school-choice policies in the country, equity in education has remained an elusive goal over the years, even as desegregation money poured into the district at a rate of $60 million a year, or roughly 15 percent of its budget in the last school year. Much of it, current and former administrators agree, plugged holes that did nothing to help improve the performance of students of color.
"Without belaboring on whether or not there was a lack of will from the parties to get it settled, there was a financial incentive" to keep the desegregation order going, said John J. Pedicone, who took over as superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District in 2011.
The plan includes strategies like better recruitment and training for teachers, more dual-language programs and more magnet schools. It also suggests re-engineering the curriculum to add cultural references familiar to black and Latino students, opening the doors for another political fight in a district still scarred over the end of a popular program focusing on the Mexican-American perspective that the state outlawed for being antiwhite.
Last month, the school district's governing board voted 3 to 2 to lift its objection to a "culturally relevant curriculum," reversing a position it had staked out when the district canceled its Mexican-American studies program last year as a result of the state's decision. The argument in favor of such classes was that they helped keep students engaged and enrolled in school. One study, cited by the program's supporters, says participants -- it enrolled 800 at last count -- were at least 46 percent more likely to graduate from high school than other students.
According to enrollment statistics from the district, Latinos, who make up 62 percent of its students, are three times as likely to be suspended and nearly twice as likely to drop out as white students, whose enrollment in the district has fallen to 23 percent from 45 percent in the 1996-97 school year. Blacks make up roughly 6 percent of the district's enrollment.
Despite the judge's decision, divisions over the role of culture in the curriculum remain. In an interview, Mark Stegeman, a member of the governing board and a vehement opponent of the Mexican-American studies program, said it was "important to find a hook of some kind" to keep students in school, "and culturally relevant pedagogy can be that hook" as long as the content was "politically neutral."
At public hearings in November, most of those who testified spoke in favor of bringing back a program just like the one that had been banned by the state.
Nancy Ramirez, a lawyer with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is representing the Latino plaintiffs in the desegregation case, said that the plan "establishes the idea of framing the curriculum on the Mexican-American and African-American experiences," but does not tell the district how to do it.
Mr. Salter, for his part, said that changing the curriculum was not all that important to him.
"We don't have a dog in this fight," he said.
He wants to see the district become better at assigning more of its experienced teachers to its most challenging schools, and at offering clear training and promotion tracks for its teachers. It should focus on increasing the number of magnet schools, he said, "the only way at this moment to keep white students in the district," and he added, it would "be smart" to take advantage of the resources coming its way like a new computer system.
A special master has been appointed to make sure the district complies with the plan. (A judge had suspended the desegregation order in 2009, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth District reversed the decision two years later, saying the district had not acted in "good faith.")
"You can't have the courts running the schools forever," Mr. Salter said. "It is time for this to end and for the district to take charge and do what's right."
Hope Miller contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.