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

When voluntary busing came to Los Angeles public schools more than two years ago, it seemed natural that Milly Harmon should be one of the first parents to sign her children up.

She was, after all, an "absolute" supporter of busing, a liberal thinker who had grown up in the activist 1960s and taught at an all-black school in Oakland, Calif., while living in nearby Berkeley.

"I was dazzled. I was thrilled with the program," she says of the school that was to become a model part of the districts busing plan. "I never saw my kids getting out of busing."

But somewhere along the bumpy road this city has taken toward court-ordered integration of its schools, busing not to be too much for Milly Harmon -- too confusing, too pointless. "Devastating" is the word she uses.

Next year, she has decided, she is calling it quits.Her three children will be enrolled in private schools.

"You asked about my liberal thoughts from the '60s?" she queries. "Well, I'm not living in the '60s now. I'm living in the '80s.

"It's not that I'm against busing per se," she explains. "But whatever it takes to make it work hasn't worked in this community . . . .

"People say we'll hang in there, but hang in with what?" she continues. "There's no education program left. The whole thing's bankrupt."

It would be unfair to say that Milly Harmon's disillusionment is characteristic of every parent who has children in the Los Angeles busing program -- or to claim that the city's 17-year battle to desegregate has failed on all fronts.

There are, to be sure, parents who still stand by the public schools here, as well as students who say that busing has been a valuable venture.

But it is also true that this school district of 500,000-plus pupils -- the second-largest in the nation -- is often singled out as a classic case of busing gone haywire. A continuing string of court rulings and appeals has compounded the confusion, spurring a growing exodus of whites, and some minorities as well, from the public school system.

As recently as Dec. 19, for example, a California court of appeals upheld the legality of a 1979 voter-approved, antibusing amendment to the state constitution.

Although that decision is expected to be appealed by early January, it could -- if allowed to stand -- put an abrupt end to the current busing plan as early as next school semester. (The plan, a court-drafted program, took effect last September, after Superior Court Judge Paul Egly found the district's two-year-old voluntary busing program inadequate to carry out the desegregation ordered by the state Supreme Court in 1976.)

Observers here say it is hard to pinpoint just why busing has not succeeded in Los Angeles -- or at least has not run as smoothly as it has elsewhere around the country.

Most do agree that, unlike their counterparts in other cities, many school officials here refused -- rightly or wrongly -- to accept desegregation as inevitable, dragging their heels all the court-ordered way.

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.

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.

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