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Los Angeles plan: some call it a classic case of a program gone haywire

(Page 2 of 2)

Little, if any, planning was done in anticipation of the expected busing order, charge critics, while a highly politicized school board waged its court battles at an estimated cost of $2 million in legal fees.

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The resulting turmoil has taken its toll. In starkest terms, there are the statistics. White enrollment as of last September was 24.1 percent of the district total -- down 12.8 percent from 1979 and down 24.6 percent in schools involved in forced busing. Although demographics have dictated a decline in white pupils in the past decade, most observers agree that mandatory busing has only hurried "white flight" along.

There are also the parents. Both liberal and conservative, white and minority, they are concerned over what they see as a declining standard of education -- and are increasingly turning away from public schools in a city that never really has developed a familiarity with the private school tradition so common on the East Coast.

Parents still speak bitterly of anguishing hours and sleepless nights spent in trying to make sense of a court-developed plan heavily criticized by busing foes and advocates alike -- a plan amended so frequently by court intervention that, right up to the opening day of school, many parents did not knwo what school their children would be attending.

"We were so dedicated to the public school," recalls Barbara Bell, whose children were attending a neighborhood school that, although already partially integrated, was drafted into the court's master plan affecting about 160 schools.

"The school district went back and forth so many times over the summer on who went where and now," she continues. "After a while you finally say, 'Wait a minute, I'm not going to sacrifice my kids.'

"When everything is sacrificed, when you're not getting quality integration or quality education, when the situation is unhandleable [sic], you have to change," she says.

So the Bells changed. Despite the longstanding determination of her private- school-educated husband to keep the children out of the "elitist" atmosphere of a private academy, the Bells enrolled their four children in private schools last September.

Nor are white parents the only ones pulling out. Although there is general support in the minority community for mandatory busing, some blacks and Hispanics are taking the private school route as well.

Nancy Ybarra is one. When it became clear that her nine-year-old son would be bused to another school last fall, she began to organize a local home tutorial program but finally opted for enrolling her son in a religiously affiliated school.

"We don't need the government to force white people to associate with us," she says. "Integration comes naturally.

"I felt busing violated our constitutional rights. And I mean everyone -- black, white, and brown," she says. "I didn't feel the government should come in and tell us what to do with our children. . . . No one should take that right away."

"I really saw a better tomorrow, as well all did," says Milly Harmon of the attitudes she developed in the 1960s. "But the realities have not worked out that way.