Washington — More than most public policy, court-ordered school busing reaches into homes and affects daily lives. It means getting up a half hour earlier to dress children for the day. It means that parents can no longer send their children to the school down the street -- the one they moved near because they especially liked it.
For black families, it usually means that youngsters will be bused the farthest and most often and that they will be sent into neighborhoods where they may be unwelcome. The black community may see the high school it once prized demoted to a junior high -- or closed altogether.
Only about 780,000 of the nation's 40 million schoolchildren are bused for purposes of desegregation, according to the US Civil Rights Commission. But emotions run so high that 26 years after the US Supreme Court first ordered schools to desegregate, the nagging question still hangs: Are busing programs worth the trouble?
Definitely not, concludes Derek A. Bell, a black former civil rights lawyer who has taught law at Harvard University and is now taking over a dean of the University of Oregon Law School. During his early career he worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He supervised 300 school cases at a time when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was asking courts to turn down "freedom of choice" school districts and require integration.
Professor Bell says he thinks "what we did was right" at that time. But today, he adds, civil rights leaders hold too rigidly to the old formulas.
"I just don't think it's working," he says of most school desegregation. "The courts have remained quite steadfast, given the tremendous opposition [to desegregation]. But there just is not the evidence that it is doing the basic thing it should."
If that basic goal is improving education for black children, according to Bell, "we still have the problems that we hoped busing might cure." The theory behind busing, he says, is that "if we put black kids where the white kids are, black kids would get what white kids are getting. It didn't work. Pressures and traditional views in society always ended up doing in integrated schools what of whites came first, and the blacks got whatever was left."
First and foremost, he says, school officials try to hold onto their white students, so they bend to please white parents. If white parents want advanced French for their children, this has higher priority than the need for the black students who may have not mastered basic English.
Also, the desire to keep whites in the public schools often results in disciplinary actions against blacks, Bell says. When black kids learn that "This is an integrated school, but it's not for us," some react by disrupting classes and, more often than their white fellow students, they are suspended or expelled, he says.
Scholars are still debating whether integrating schools boosts learning for black youngsters. Bell maintains that "thinking" blacks make academic gains is not enough. "We need clear evidence," he says. "The tendency is for arguments to focus on busing, and educational issues are lost in the shuffle."
Instead, he argues, officials should look at black schools that work well, especially in Northern industrial cities where few whites are left to bus into schools anyway.
"In almost every city, there are one or two all-black schools that really work well," he says. The key is a strong principal, some parental participation , and good teachers.
"None of it is easy, but it can be done," he says.
For black parent who prefer white-majority schools, they should have the "absolute right" to have their children bused to those schools. But others also should have the right to attend their neighborhood schools. "To say no is to repeat the kind of coercion that Brown [shorthand for Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregated schools] was supposed to stop: coercion on the basis of race."
Further, Bell calls busing harmful because it poses as an instant cure for black school problems. "The policy assumes it will do for you. You don't have to do anything. That's not true."
What black parents need are policies that allow them to do for themselves, he says. When middle-class parents are unhappy with their schools, they go in and investigate. "Poor parents," he continues, "are going to have to do the same thing -- even more." Moreover, he contends, teachers in poor areas must work closely with parents.
Taking the opposite view from Bell is Robert L. Crain, a senior social scientist for the Rand Corporation, and a thorough supporter of school busing.
Mr. Crain has recently completed a study of 93 other studies on how integration affects test scores of black children. He concedes that some research has found no effects, even negative effects. But, based on his own extensive look, he says, the best studies show that blacks who go to majority-white schools from an early age learn more.
And, Crain says, the need for busing goes even further than academics, since he sees poor race relations at the root of many problems facing the United States, including crime and urban decay.
"I think school desegregation is completely tied up with the rest of the race problems," he says. "and it's the only leverage we've got. The only trouble is that it sounds as if the children are being used as pawns."
Crain says black students are integrated schools do learn more. He maintains that they also are slightly more likely to go to a good college and perform well there, and that they have the advantage of more contacts in the white community for getting jobs. Finally, at integrated schools, blacks have a chance to deal with whites at an early age.
"If they [blacks] hang out with whites beginning at six or seven years old, they will be less afraid of them and more confident when they have to face them later," he says.
For whites, he says that desegregation has shown no effects on achievement scores but that surveys show white students become somewhat less prejudiced against nonwhites. About the only advantage he sees for them is that schools are often modernized when they are desegregated and that "desegregation is a good educational experience, a good introduction to politics."
Crain concedes that violence in schools often rises as a result of desegregation, that many blacks are "dumped into lower tracks" in their courses, and that whites tend to leave a school system if the schools in it becomes more than half black.
But the advantages are so great, according to Crain, that he joints many busing proponents in backing metropolitan-wide busing programs that would unite suburban and inner-city school systems in even bigger busing systems. Metropolitan busing is in effect in some areas, including Louisville, Ky.; Wilmington, Del.; several Florida counties; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.
"Skipping New York City, you can probably draw a metro plan that makes sense for most, or all, of the cities that now have majority-black schools," according to Crain.
William Taylor, director of the Center for National Policy Review at Catholic University Law School in Washington, also backs metropolitan-wide busing. He points to a recent student study done for his center showing that when school busing is ordered for an entire region, "white flight" tends to halt, since there is virtually no place to go.
"Some people are making an erroneous assumption that somehow this process of school desegregation is coming to an end," says Mr. Taylor. He points out, however, that the courts have been fairly consistent in backing school busing plans. "The assumption that the whole thing will peter out is wrong," he says, adding that the recent antibusing measure that was passed by Congress and vetoed by President Carter was "patently unconstitutional" in his view. Even if the federal government stops bringing suits for desegregating schools, he points out , the NAACP will carry the burden, just as it did during the Nixon administration.
While the Supreme Court has stood firm against racially divided schools, Taylor concedes that even the courts feel some of the discontent over school busing.
A year ago, the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the dallas school system to reduce a busing plan, but three justices -- just one short of the number required -- voted to hear the arguments. Said Justice Lewis Powell in his dissenting opinion:
"It is increasingly evident that use of the busing remedy to achieve racial balance can conflict with the goals of equal educational opportunity and quality schools. In all too many cities, well-intentioned court decrees have had the primary effect of stimulating resegregation."
He pointed to the fact that Dallas schools had gone from 69 percent "anglo" (white) in 1971 to 33.5 percent "anglo" in 1979.
Busing is a suitable remedy for communities with a relatively small population scattered throughout the area, but not for big cities, Justice Powell wrote. "In large cities, the principal cause of segregation in the schools is residential segregation, which results largely from demographic and economic conditions over which school authorities have no control."
So far, the Supreme Court has not been swayed by the antibusing sentiment.But busing foes are beginning to sniff the scent of victory.
Next: a city where busing works -- Wilmington, Del.