The Prince George's County Citizens Advisory Committee on Busing this week commissioned a study that will seek ways to place first through sixth grade students in schools within walking distance of their homes.
In its first public hearing, held at Eleanor Roosevelt Senior High School in Greenbelt, the committee agreed to ask the school's system's research staff to produce an assignment system that would make it possible for students to attend neighborhood elementary schools.
The county school board appointed the 27-member committee in October and charged it with seeking ways to reduce busing without resegregating the schools.
"We won't be locking ourselves into anything by asking for a computer study of the elemenary school assignment system," Emerson Markham, chairman of the committee, told his colleagues. "This study is just a starting point from which we can analyze the options."
Markham said the committee chose not to do a similar study for the junior high and high schools because the superintendent and Board of Education are considering whether to replace the present junior and senior high schools with a system of four-year high schools and two-year middle schools.
Some committee members worried that commissioning the elementary school study might give the impression that the advisory committee has given racial composition of the schools little primacy in its deliberations.
"We don't want to be sending the wrong signals to the community," one committee member warned.
The committee's work has already sparked sharp conflict between supporters and opponents of the 1973 court-ordered plan to desegregate the schools.
Bonnie Johns, the only voting black member of the county school board, refused to appoint any representatives to the advisory committee. In addition, both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have refused to allow representatives to serve on the committee.
At its meeting this week, the committee voted to send letters inviting NAACP and ACLU representatives to testify at next week's hearing. Spokespersons for the two groups said, however, that there is little chance either will do so.
"We're at odds on primary goals," said Claire Bigelow, who heads the Prince George's ACLU education committee. "They are most concerned with reducing busing and we're most concerned about creating an integrated school system."
John Rosser, chairman of the education committee of the Prince George's NAACP chapter, said, "We would have to get an okay from the national office before we could participate. It's highly unlikely anyway that our organization would send anyone to testify. The committee's charge is too narrow."
Despite the controversy surrounding busing and the new committee appointed to study it, hardly more than a dozen citizens came out this week to participate in the first public hearing on the issue, and none of them spoke.
Instead, the committee heard testimony from a civil rights lawyer, a representative of the Prince George's County Board of Realtors, and two committee members.
Mary von Euler, an attorney in desegregation studies at the National Institute of Education, gave a brief outline of civil rights cases relating to education since the Brown decision, the Supreme Court ruling that ordered an end to segregated schools. She told the committee that desegregation in many cases had led to less busing in the rural south.
Paul Fowler, executive vice-president of the Price George's County Board of Realtors, said that busing has increased white flight from the county in the last six years.
"A lot of whites are leaving for Charles County because of busing," Fowler told the committee. "If there was ever a time when some action was needed to stop busing, it's right now. We're losing a lot of people."
Committee members James Hudnall and James Garrett argued that during the past six years the number of racially segregated schools in the county has increased as has the size of the black population.
The committee spent a considerable amount of its time arguing over an acceptable definition of an integrated school system. Some members argued that the committee need only come up with a system which did not consciously take race into account, while others argued that the group should come up with a range of racial percentages that all or most county schools should approximate.
Committee vice-chairman Otis Ducker argued. "I haven't seen a court yet that said that good intentions were enough. We'll have to consider some kind of percentage goals."
The committee will hold another public hearing on busing Monday night at Largo Senior High School, and seek to define what an integrated school system is. It has planned four other meetings in January, and has been asked to file a final report with the school board in early February.