More battles on busing seen despite court rulings

No precedents set. No new directions charted. No end of the road in sight.

The United States Supreme Court's June 30 ruling on two mandatory-busing cases - involving the desegregation of public schools in Los Angeles and Seattle - holds little, if any, legal impact for other busing programs around the country, some legal scholars say. And, in the case of Los Angeles, the high court's ruling ends only the latest chapter, and not the whole tale, in the history of this city's tumultuous 19-year desegregation battle.

''What happened in Washington and California are really unique cases,'' explains James Kushner, author of ''Apartheid in America,'' and a constitutional law professor. ''Neither of them has any practical significance anywhere else . . . .''

The Washington case sprang from an unusual move taken by the Seattle Board of Education in 1977 - a voluntary decision to introduce a desegregation program involving mandatory busing, generally introduced only when a court orders a school district to do so.

In its 5-to-4 ruling on the Washington case, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a statewide initiative, passed by voters in November 1978, that barred districts from taking children away from neighborhood schools to achieve racial balance. The initiative, aimed at overturning the Seattle program, was held to be a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The decision means that Seattle's program - involving 13,000 of 46,679 students - will continue operating.

At issue in the California case was the validity of Proposition 1, a state constitutional amendment approved by a 2-to-1 margin by voters in November 1979. The proposition - which prohibits state courts from requiring schools to bus students unless intentional segregation is found - in essence forced California's liberal Supreme Court into greater conformity with US Supreme Court rulings.

In a decisive 8-to-1 decision, the high court ruled that the California Supreme Court had ''gone beyond'' federal constitutional requirements to prohibit racial discrimination. While the nation's high court has indicated that busing may be ordered as a means to correct intentional segregation, the California justices held in 1976 that districts had an obligation to desegregate whether segregation occurred intentionally, because racial discrimination, or by happenstance, because of demographic patterns.

The US Supreme Court concluded that California voters had done nothing unconstitutional when they ''chose to pull back'' from the state Supreme Court's ruling.

''That's a decision that's hard to avoid,'' says Lino Graglia, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas Law School. ''The California court had said that the California constitution required more than the federal constitution. So the voters amended the state constitution. . . . It would be extraordinary to say that voters can't change the state constitution.''

Los Angeles Unified School District is pursuing a voluntary desegregation program involving ''magnet'' schools, voluntary busing of minority students, and special relief to minority schools. Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has spearheaded the desegregation challenge, calls the board's plan ''no plan,'' the Board of Education president, Tom Bartman, says the numbers of students involved in voluntary programs show that ''voluntary integration has proven to work without having to scare people into a mandatory program.''

And despite the Supreme Court's decision, legal battles over desegregation of Los Angeles public schools are likely to stretch far into the future. On one front, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is pursuing a case in an attempt to prove that desegregation in Los Angeles has been intentional.

In 1970, the late Judge Alfred Gitelson found the school board guilty of intentional segregation. Mandatory busing was not ordered until 1980 when Judge Paul Egly held that the two-year-old voluntary program was not sufficient to desegregate the schools. Forced busing came to an end in April 1981 after the state Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling upholding the constitutionality of Proposition 1. The decision was appealed.

The Los Angeles battle over busing has required the oversight of three Superior Court judges, exhausted many parents and students, and launched political careers for antibusing advocates. The case began in 1963 when the ACLU filed a suit on behalf of several students. At that time, white enrollment in the Los Angeles school district was nearly 60 percent of the total, a figure that has dropped to only 22 percent.

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