Busing still the vortex of national debate over school desegregation

Busing may not grab headlines like it did during the violent demonstrations of the late '70s. But the question of how best to deal with racial segregation in the nation's schools still generates controversy.

In Boston, once a center of antibusing protest, the courts are in the final stages of returning control over schools to local officials. But the debate over busing clamors on. At present, ironically, it may be hottest in the city's black community.

Claiming that citywide busing of their children has brought them neither a better education nor truly integrated schools, a new organization, Concerned Black Parents, is seeking ''freedom of choice'' in school assignments.

''We are tired of our children being bused to inadequate schools in hostile communities,'' the group recently declared.

But its view on busing's usefulness runs head-on into opinions held by others in the black community.

''No way!'' thunders Thomas I. Atkins, general counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). ''Never, never! Freedom of choice is an old ploy segregationists have used to keep black and white children from going to school together through the years.''

In the Pacific Northwest, Seattle has been running its schools under voluntary desegregation, which includes some elements of freedom of choice. Under the plan, one-third of the city's students are bused voluntarily to achieve racially balanced classrooms. In 1978 Washington State voters approved an initiative allegedly designed to stop integration efforts, but a court challenge prevented the law from taking effect. If the initiative is declared legal, however, the voluntary program would be dissolved, say its opponents.

In California, a similar antibusing proposal was passed by voters three years ago. So-called Proposition 1 was aimed at curtailing court-ordered desegregation in Los Angeles, according to litigants who have challenged it.

Both the Washington and California cases have made their way to the US Supreme Court. The nation's top court heard arguments on the cases March 22. Earlier, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Washington initiative; California's high court, however, upheld Proposition 1.

Earlier this year, the US Senate voted 57 to37 to bar federal courts from ordering busing of more than five miles or 15 minutes as a tool for desegregation. The effect of the Senate measure would be to prohibit the US Justice Department from using busing as a remedy for segregated schools, and to allow the department to initiate action to weaken busing orders already in effect. The House of Representatives has not yet acted.

One city that has managed to quietly integrate its schools on a volunteer basis, with minimum use of busing, is Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. The city has avoided any court action, and it has also avoided ''white flight'' - the withdrawal of white children from city schools, which became a prominent feature of Boston's desegregation effort. Instead, student population has stabilized, according to Superintendent Robert W. Peebles.

Superintendent Peebles says a federal antibusing law would be a mistake. ''As difficult as busing has been, as mistaken as some plans may have been, to take away from school systems one of the tools that makes possible desegregation would be an egregious error,'' he wrote in a recent letter to the Washington Post.

A basic problem with the freedom of choice option favored by the black parents' group in Boston is that it's ''legally unacceptable,'' says William Taylor, civil rights attorney with the Center for National Policy Review of the law school of Catholic University in Washington, DC. ''This does not remedy the constitutional violation of a person's civil rights.''

Desegregation on a metropolitan basis, combining suburbs with the inner city, may be the only means of truly integrating urban schools, Mr. Taylor says. This method is working, he says, in Wilmington, Del., and surrounding Newcastle County; Louisville, Ky., and Jefferson County; Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C.; Indianapolis, Ind., and surrounding areas; and in Tampa, Fla., and Hillsbury County.

''In several of these areas busing has been reduced because residential integration has been increased,'' he added. ''Desegregation has been stable, and there has been no white flight.''

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