Los Angeles school desegregation: the 18-year-long 'ride' is over

When the big yellow school buses roll away from Richland Avenue Elementary School today (April 10), they will be taking 54 children who won't be back -- they'll be in classrooms miles closer to home.

All across the 710-square-mile Los Angeles Unified School District, in fact, thousands of children will be boarding buses for the last time, as forced busing begins a court-upheld halt here -- 18 years after this city's desegregation battle first began.

School officials say they expect that 7,300 children -- approximately 30 percent of the 23,000 children bused under the district's mandatory desegregation busing program --April 20, following a one-week spring break.

Under a March 16 school board decision --Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling upholding the constitutionality of a voter-approved antibusing proposition --parents were given the choice of returning their children to their home schools as early as April 20, or waiting until the school year ends in mid-June, when the district's mandatory busing program will be dismantled.

In the past three weeks, principals, administrators, and teachers have all waded through a mound of paper work in anticipation of the midterm upheaval. Because many children have opted to finish out the year at the schools they now attend, administrators have had to juggle pupils -- meaning that many returning students will face larger classes, combined grades (such as first and second graders in one classroom), and new teachers.

But compared with the chaos that surrounded the first day of school last September -- when a flurry of court and school board decisions kept school assignments in a state of flux until the last minute -- plans for the current readjustment have proceeded fairly smoothly.

"A lot of us have gone through so much this year, that this is just one more thing," says a calm Dr. Donald Wallace, principal of Richland school.Dr. Wallace is still sorting through records of the 58 pupils who will be leaving, and of the 98 children who will be returning.

Busing emotions have run high in Los Angeles ever since 1976, when the courts first ordered the school board to desegregate its schools. Four years of voluntary plans, scrapped plans, and endless court appeals finally brought the district to the court-ordered plan, involving students in 154 schools in grades 1 through 9, which now is being dismantled.

The key to the controversial plan's demise was a recent appellate court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 1, a state constitutional amendment that sought to bring California law into line with federal law by stating that mandatory busing could be required only where intentional segregation was found. California law had held that even segregation caused unintentionally by such factors as demographic trends warranted remedies through forced busing programs.

But long before the latest round of court opinions, many parents, both white and minority, had given up on the system -- choosing instead to enroll their children in private schools or in one of the many home tutorial programs that have sprung up in the city since 1978. (School district officials say they expect many of these parents to return their children to public school next fall , but say they have no estimates now on what those numbers will involve).

The problem, according to many disillusioned parents who complained at court hearings, was that the plan focused on ensuring that the numbers of children involved in the program met court-ordered ethnic quotas instead of concentrating on the children's educational needs.

"forcing a child to ride a bus does not integrate a school," says Richland's Dr. Wallace, summing up the feelings of many parents. "It changes numbers, but it doesn't desegregate schools.

"that has to come from within," he says, "Whether through voluntary busing or magnet programs or whatever."

The end of the district's forced busing program does not mean a complete end to busing. The board already has reaffirmed its commitment to two current voluntary desegregation programs: Permits With Transportation, the one-way busing of nearly 15,000 minority students to schools of their choice; and the magnet school program, which buses some 15,000 students to 64 learning centers that offer training in special fields, such as performing arts or the humanities.

Although the drawn-out court appeals that have peppered the district's desegregation efforts appear to be over for now, more court battles may be in the offing.According to Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a major busing proponent, the ACLU is not likely to appeal the state Supreme Court's most recent decision to the US Supreme Court.

However, she said, after consulting with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to develop a "joint strategy," the ACLU may take the busing case back to court again -- either through a lawsuit filed in federal court (the last battle was waged in state courts), or through California courts once more, on the grounds that segregation in the city has been intentional.

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