CHICAGO — AMID the sweet aroma from a nearby bread factory, students tumble with shouts and laughter from buses for another day of school at the Beasley Academic Center.
The 1,200 youths, many from low-income households, find brief refuge in Beasley from inner-city life. Inside the clean, cinnamon-brick school, the children study flanked by opaque windows that allow light in but soften the looming outlines of public tenements outside.
Beasley, a "magnet" school for Grades 1 to 8, is widely considered a paragon in Chicago's effort to provide integrated public education. Four out of 5 Beasley students are bused in. Fifteen percent are white, the rest minorities.
Now, however, Chicago city officials are scrutinizing the system of integration and busing that underlies special schools like Beasley. Following the lead of several US cities ranging from Seattle to Wilmington, Del., City Hall is considering whether to urge the US Justice Department to alter or scrap federal court orders on desegregation. It would be the largest US school system to take such a step.
Chicago is eyeing its desegregation program in response to the nationwide rise in political conservatism and Supreme Court decisions easing the obligation of many urban school systems to desegregate. Yet momentum to roll back busing is building just as the O.J. Simpson acquittal and the Million Man March on Washington have focused national attention on the wide gap in racial perceptions between blacks and whites.
Like other cities, Chicago's motive is partly economic - the high cost of busing. "It's the dollars that are driving the whole issue," says Alvin Peterson, director of Chicago's Equal Education Opportunity Program.
Yet there is an unusual twist here as well: Many minority educators have joined cost-conscious officials in the call to change busing. The educators say busing in Chicago disproportionately helps whites more than African Americans, and the middle class more than the poor.
"The buses that are rolling are not taking white kids into black neighborhoods or black kids into white neighborhoods, they are taking middle-class students to specialty schools," says Charles Mingo, principal of DuSable High, a predominantly black school here.
Low-income parents near DuSable resent seeing buses heading for magnet schools like Beasley that accept just a fraction of the neighboring children who apply, says Mr. Mingo, a desegregation supporter.
"Busing is a middle-class phenomena in Chicago and I don't think if you stopped busing you would necessarily have resegregated schools," he says.
Chicago highlights how budget-cutting and the resulting tension between haves and have-nots have divided the liberal coalition that conceived and pushed through integration decades ago.
"The current issues have divided the old desegregation allies. The old civil rights activists on the far left and the practical, down-to-earth people have split into different camps," says G. Alfred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, a private, nonprofit research and advocacy group.
"Pragmatic" supporters of desegregation say the federal government must give cities more leeway in ensuring a racially diverse faculty and student body. They say many schools suffer when shoehorned into a narrow desegregation scheme.
"Busing is tearing apart communities because parents are not going to be involved in a school that is 18 miles away on the other end of the city: That doesn't help anyone's education," says Zoran Petrovich, principal of the Ogden High School. Busing is widely criticized as disruptive to the ideal of neighborhood schooling.
Defenders of Chicago's current desegregation programs say, however, that any dilution of busing smacks of a return to segregation.
"I have no idea how Chicago could promote integration without busing," says Mr. Peterson.
"Busing is a curriculum in itself because you're enhancing integration; you're enhancing the cultural experiences of the child when they all share their cultures," says Patricia Tweedle, the assistant principal at Beasley. "The busing program works fine for us. We need our busing, we depend on our busing."
Although model desegregated schools like Beasley swear by it, busing in Chicago disproportionately benefits whites over minorities, say some educators.
Whites make up 11.7 percent of Chicago public-school students. A federal consent decree, however, requires magnet schools to admit classes that are at least 15 percent white. As a result, white students competing among themselves have a greater chance of winning acceptance at a magnet school than minority students, who face harder competition for openings. Set up in large part for the magnet schools, the $35 million busing program ends up serving a disproportionate number of whites, critics say.
Unlike in other cities, desegregation "doesn't drive whites out of the system at all. If anything it provides a safety net for them because they enjoy disproportionate access to the magnet schools compared to blacks and Hispanics," says Mr. Hess.
City Hall is apparently irked less by how busing favors whites than by its cost. Education finances are pinched hard by a tightfisted state legislature and voter reluctance to accept a recent hike in city taxes.
Mayor Daley, a Democrat who has carefully cultivated a reputation for efficiency, believes the busing budget might be better spent on books, teachers' salaries, computers, or other areas of education, says a spokesperson in the mayor's office.
Regardless of their opinion on busing, educators and officials agree that more flexibility is needed in a federal consent decree requiring a certain racial mix among school faculty.
"The consent decree ties our hands in selecting the best person for the job, be he white or black," according to Tweedle.
"My problem is I want good teachers," says Mingo, principal of DuSable High: "I don't care whether they're white, black, blue, or green."