Five years ago, the affluent community of Chevy Chase put its faith in a system of school integration that gave parents there a reputation for progressive politics and racial tolerance.

Now the community is divided over whether to keep the system or scrap it, and suddenly Chevy Chase's liberal reputation is at stake.

With a conservative school board dominating school closing policy in Montgomery County, Chevy Chase has a chance to opt out of a plan that currently sends many of its white children several miles by bus to a predominantly minority school for primary grades. And though most parents insist that they want to preserve racial integration in the schools, there is considerable disharmony and bitterness over how to do it.

"What you find is that you've got a 5-year-old bigot on your hands," says Norman Blumenthal, a government lawyer whose white daughter is bused to her first grade class at the Rosemary Hills Elementary School. He has no complaints about her primary school education, but Blumenthal says that his daughter, who has black godparents, has begun to perceive black children in negative terms because of what he says is an enormous cultural divide separating the affluent whites from Chevy Chase and the lower-income minority children who live in the area surrounding Rosemary Hills. He says the problem is "economic, not racial."

"Our kids over there are a white fig leaf," he insists. "There is no real integration. It didn't work. It doesn't work."

But Blumenthal's view is hardly unanimous. Equally vocal are parents who, in the spirit of the old civil rights movement, fought for the plan in 1976 and want to stick with it. Many others, who joined the effort recently, simply believe it works.

"My son has friends he would not have had otherwise," Edie Tatel says of one of her two children who have attended Rosemary Hills. While she has observed that some negative attitudes are reinforced by the racial mixing, she is convinced that "many more stereotypes are broken."

"I think many, many families in Chevy Chase have made a great leap and consider our community larger than its boundaries," Tatel says. "That's why we have to continue. There is no reason to turn back the clock."

Under the current school integration plan, children from both the Chevy Chase and Rosemary Hills neighborhoods attend Rosemary Hills school for kindergarten through second grade and Chevy Chase school for grades three through six.

Those who support the structure, like Rosemary Hills Principal Dru Stafford, say that integration and educational equity are best achieved when children are young, particularly in a primary school.

Switching to the old system, she and others have told the school board, would undo a social experiment that they believe is successful.

"I think it is helpful for children to learn to get along, and it is better to have them together even if sometimes it backfires," says Sally Popper, a white Chevy Chase resident whose daughter is in kindergarten at Rosemary Hills. "Even if the kids are not bosom buddies, they are coexisting in a positive environment."

What has transpired during the debate over the integration plan is that many parents have pitted their political ideologies against what they say are more "pragmatic" concerns. The plan has failed, they say, not because of racial schisms, but because other schools in the "cluster" refused to attempt it.

Helen Secrest, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat and whose child went to Rosemary Hills for two years, says that in practical terms the existing system "is not workable unless the adjacent schools have the same grade organization."

Patricia Baptiste, president of the Chevy Chase PTA, told the school board last week that over the past few years the Rosemary Hills and Chevy Chase parents groups had urged neighboring schools to get involved to no avail. Now Baptiste's organization, without a formal vote, has proposed to split the Rosemary Hills and Chevy Chase pairing. But they say they hope a plan can be devised that would still maintain racial balance in the schools.

Finally, some parents say that unless the pairing is broken, more and more parents will enroll their children in private schools, which began to swell with Chevy Chase students when integration began five yeas ago.

The arguments in favor and against have reached a feverish pitch in Chevy Chase. Old political wounds have been reopened. Neighbors who were friendly have become less so. One civic association has even withdrawn from the debate because it is "too divisive."

For old time liberals, it is a particularly hard time. There is a growing perception that the attack on the Rosemary Hills and Chevy Chase school pairing is part of a conservative trend that has spread across the country. There is a sense that the "silent majority" of five years ago -- parents who reluctantly went along with integration -- feel they have done their duty and now can afford to speak out without the risk of being labeled racists.

"A new network has formed on the center-right in our community," says Scott Rutherford, one of the earliest integration activists in Chevy Chase. "People on the left have much quieter voices now."