School districts settling down after a quarter-century of court-ordered desegregation now find apparently solid constitutional ground turning into shifting sand.
Desegregation advocates see past gains undermined on three sides by:
* A shift in federal policy from pro- to antibusing under the Reagan administration, with support from the Republican-led Senate.
* Public disillusionment reflected in the Los Angeles School Board vote Monday ending mandatory busing there, following a California Supreme Court ruling last week.
* Increasing numbers of blacks joining the antibusing ranks in return for gaining greater control over inner-city schools.
On the federal front, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina is among those most pleased by the change. He is convinced that the tide has turned against busing. In the last Congress he failed to win passage of his amendment barring the Justice Department from using forced busing to desegregate schools.
Senator Helms promises to pursue the busing battle anew in Congress this year. He argues that the 1980 election was a public mandate to end court-ordered busing and notes that the election put into office "a president who has been constantly on record in opposition to forced busing."
Whether or not Helms pushes antibusing legislation through the new Congress, there will be "less emphasis on busing as a remedy for segregation," according to one Reagan administration official. This shift, the official explains, will reflect the US Supreme Court's own ruling that busing should be "only a last resort" after magnet schools, pairing and clustering of schools, and all other possible remedies have failed.
Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and President Reagan are both quoted by Department of Education and Justice Department spokesmen as favoring restrictions on busing. When questioned on NBC television's "Meet the Press" broadcast March 15, Mr. Bell said that "there have just got to be other approaches than busing to attaining a better racial balance."
For veteran desegregation lawyer Joseph Rauh, general counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, the Reagan-Bell-Helms approach represents a shift from "the Carter administration's timid, hesitant, and confused approach" to "a totally negative attitude."
Prof. William Taylor, director of the Center for National Policy Review at the Catholic University Law School in Washington, says there may be a return to "the policy of nonenforcement" pursued during the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Both Professor Taylor and Mr. Rauh are concerned that other cities may follow the recent Los Angeles lead. In that case, the California Supreme Court last week upheld the constitutionality of a voter-approved state initiative forbidding mandatory busing except to correct deliberate segregation. This decision ends forced busing in cases where desegregation is deemed the inadvertant result of housing patterns.
The court ruling was followed March 16 by a unanimous school board vote to end mandatory busing in Los Angeles next month.
Taylor says that although the California action does not affect federal law, "it is certainly unfortunate in psychological, if not legal, terms to have one of the largest cities in the nation go back on its desegregation plan."
Another precedent that worries desegregation advocates has been set by some black organizations in Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas. Groups like the Black Coalition for Maximizing Education in Dallas have decided to oppose court-ordered busing. In return, these groups hope to gain greater representation on school boards and more funds for hiring black teachers and improving black-run, inner-city schools.
In the face of this incipient trend, Taylor, who worked on several major school desegregation programs, argues that "you don't desegregate without a program of mandatory reassignment. . . . I don't know of any school district that was successfully desegregated simply by recourse to voluntary programs."
Taylor expects clashes in both the courts and Congress if the new administration sticks to the 1980 Republican Party platform, which stated: "We condemn the forced busing of schoolchildren to achieve arbitrary racial quotas. Busing has been a prescription for disaster , blighting whole communities. . . ."