CLEVELAND _ A federal judge on Friday declared that the city school district has done all it can to end segregation and he will free the district from court-ordered programs by 2000.
U.S. District Chief Judge George White's ruling provides a framework for ending a racial discrimination lawsuit that began 25 years ago.
The ruling did not immediately pass control of the state's largest district to the Cleveland mayor, as the Legislature mandated last year, but White said he would schedule a hearing soon to work out the transition. Until then, the state remains in control, as it has been since 1995.
White said disparities that remain between black and white students in the district are the product of socioeconomic factors _ not segregation.
"The purposes of this desegregation litigation have been fully achieved," he wrote in an 88-page decision.
Of the district's 70,000 students, about 49,000 are black.
But White acknowledged that the district is plagued by poor student performance, and urged adults to become more involved in educating children.
"The academic achievement of all students in the Cleveland school district needs to improve," he said during a brief hearing before releasing the ruling.
John Goff, state superintendent of public instruction, said in a brief statement that he was pleased with the ruling. The state's lead attorney agreed.
"It's a victory for the students and the people of Cleveland," said lawyer Margaret Anne Cannon.
The case dates back to 1973, when attorney James Hardiman filed a class-action suit on behalf of black students and their parents, charging the district ran segregated schools.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the black students three years later.
The federal court adopted a desegregation plan that set itself up as the district's chief authority. Since then, all decisions made for the district have been subject to the approval of a federal judge. Forced busing, a controversial piece of the plan, was ended in 1996.
"It appears they are writing off the children of Cleveland," Hardiman said Friday. He is considering an appeal.
Richard McCain, a representative of black parents, was more upbeat.
"I think the system has made some great steps forward, and I think that it is up to all of us to see that things keep moving forward," he said.
In 1995, U.S. District Judge Robert Krupansky ordered that day-to-day operations of the debt-ridden and mismanaged schools be turned over to the state.
Last year, the two sides argued in court over whether the district has met a list of criteria both sides agreed on in 1994 as benchmarks for ending the case.
Attorneys for the district and state said everything that could be done to provide equal opportunities in the district has been.
Students' lawyers disagreed. They said it's too soon to tell whether new educational opportunities like reading programs and magnet schools have redressed the inequalities of the past.
Under the 1994 agreement, the litigation was to end in 2000. That will remain as the timeline for ending the case under White's ruling.
Cleveland Schools Superintendent James Penning said the district will keep its promises in the 1994 pact to improve opportunities for reading programs and other educational opportunities. Cannon said the state will contribute about $93 million to court-ordered programs by 2000.
White's decision said the schools have been forced to comply with two or three times as many orders as any other district working under a desegregation ruling.
The students might have be better off with a streamlined ruling that focused more on education, he speculated.
In a related matter, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Timothy McGinty denied a request from community activists to block Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White from taking over the Cleveland schools. There was no reason to issue such an order because the federal ruling doesn't lift state control of the schools, McGinty said.