The Reagan administration hopes - and some civil rights activists fear - that a recent federal district court decision here is the beginning of the end for court-ordered busing in the United States.
They're reacting to a Chicago judge's decision to let that city's school system desegregate voluntarily, rather than bus pupils between schools to achieve a racial mix.
But other education experts suggest that the Chicago case is unique, and won't generate a nationwide trend.
The Reagan administration, which has long argued that busing doesn't work and two months ago asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1971 ruling allowing court-ordered busing, clearly hopes that such a trend is underway.
William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, says he hopes the Chicago plan, relying on education-enrichment programs rather than mandatory pupil reassignment, will serve as a national model. A few civil rights experts say Judge Milton Shadur's acceptance of the Chicago Board of Education plan marks a move away from busing in the US.
''I think that's a fair prediction - I'd be very surprised if there's any return to a heavier kind of mandate,'' says William Hazard, a Northwestern University education professor. ''The implication seems clear that the government is backing off from putting much pressure on the schools to do anything.''
Most past court-ordered desegregation action includes mandatory shifts of pupils from one school to another to get a more desirable racial mix. The moves generally involve busing, which civil rights activists such as the National Association for the Advancement ofColored People (NAACP) consider essential to effective desegregation - particularly in cities where resistance to change is high. NAACP general counsel Thomas Atkins charges that the Chicago school board ''intentionally rejected'' effective measures in this case and turned to a ''mixed bag of previously failed techniques.''
But many civil rights experts say they view the Chicago decision as an isolated case rather than a turning point.
Since more than half of Chicago's public schools are at least 85 percent black, some civil rights experts surmise that Judge Shadur took the action he did out of a realistic concern that little further desegregation was possible and that stronger action would trigger further white flight.
Some add that the case sets no legal precedents because it involves the approval of a consent decree by the Chicago Board of Education, and not a litigated remedial plan.
To duck a threatened Justice Department suit two years ago, the board, which has been mulling what to do about desegregation for more than two decades, agreed in the consent decree to develop its own plan of action. Judge Shadur simply accepted the plan as constitutional, noting that it was largely a ''promise'' which must be closely monitored.
University of Chicago Political Scientist Gary Orfield, author of a recent study suggesting that black student segregation is on the rise in the Northeast and Midwest, says a number of other federal district court decisions have similarly denied busing as a remedy. But most have been overturned later at the appellate level.
The problem in this case, he says, is that neither the school board nor the Justice Department represent the interests of minority children. A court suit by such an outside agency as the NAACP (it already has one suit pending against the Chicago board and is mulling another) could lead to a significantly different decision.
Many, including Judge Shadur, now argue that the time for substantial desegregation may well have passed. Back in 1961, when parents of black children filed the first suit against Chicago schools, the system was 47 percent black.
Both Willis Hawley, the dean of Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Teachers, and Robert Crain, a social scientist with Johns Hopkins University, note that many civil rights experts and most judges tend to equate desegregation with predominantly white schools. Under the Chicago consent decree, for instance , a school which has at least 30 percent minority students will be considered desegregated.
''I don't think there's any real surprise in the Chicago decision,'' says Dr. Crain. ''There's no reason to think the Reagan administration has achieved some wonderful moral victory over the courts. . . . Carter's Justice Department would have done essentially the same thing.'' (Indeed, Judge Shadur is a Carter appointee.)
Michigan's Professor Vergon notes that a similar legal argument made in Detroit - that whites were too few for effective desegregation - was rejected by the courts on grounds that even a small percentage of whites could be distributed more equitably. ''A majority black district can still be desegregated,'' he says.