The troubled Baton Rouge school system is being seen as a test case for the Reagan administration's announced policy of helping school districts obtain rollbacks of court-decreed busing orders.
The case, Davis v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, dates from 1955. It is the oldest active federal lawsuit in the country, according to Robert Williams, attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Baton Rouge.
When the Baton Rouge schools were first desegregated, the judge involved was ''a conservative . . . who took the issue seriously but didn't go overboard,'' according to school board president George H. Richard. But in 1979 the case was reopened with another judge, John Parker, who ordered the school board, the NAACP, and the Justice Department to devise a new plan. Says Mr. Richard, ''We never could even agree . . . that the quality of education should be of utmost concern.''
When these negotiations failed, the judge came up with a plan of his own. Central to this plan was a proposal for schools that would draw from a broad geographical area, but have students of only one or two grades. School officials protested that it was educationally unsound to put pupils in five different schools in as many years. That particular proposal was dropped. But it is Judge Parker's plan, as modified at the insistence of school officials, that has been phased in over the past two years.
School officials say that on average Baton Rouge pupils now have a 40-minute bus ride to and from the classroom. The official figure for ''white flight'' - pupils lost to parochial and other private schools - is nearly 8,000 out of a pupil population of 65,000 two years ago. Currently, enrollment in city schools is 52 percent white and 48 percent black.
''It's not a black-white issue, it's a busing issue,'' says Richard.
''Busing is not the issue!'' responds NAACP attorney Williams. ''The issue is racism.''
He argues that Baton Rouge already owns a fleet of buses that is used to transport children to maintain segregation patterns. He says that Judge Parker's plan does not go far enough, and, indeed, the NAACP has appealed the judge's plan.
''We've gone from 'all deliberate speed' to 'desegregation now.' And now the Reagan administration wants to turn back the clock. Anything other than full and immediate desegregation would be disaster for Baton Rouge,'' says Williams.
However, W. Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, has won a stay of the NAACP's appeal. This will allow the Justice Department and the local school board to come up with an alternative to the current busing plan - which Mr. Reynolds terms the ''failed experiment.''
The Justice Department has engaged Boston University political scientist Christine Rossell to study the Baton Rouge situation and recommend improvements.
Specifically, she told the Montior that she will be analyzing the varying rates of white flight and degrees of racial balance in the individual schools. She will consider factors such as a school's age, historical achievement level, and social class to see how these affect interracial contact, which she says is the ''net benefit of school desegregation.'' She is to report by Nov. 15 to the Justice Department, which has a Nov. 30 deadline for any new proposals from Judge Parker.