LAST APRIL I sat in the library of Montgomery County's Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, one of five white parents talking over our concerns with the principal. On the surface, the subject was academic quality, but the subtext was race. We were all exploring ways to avoid sending our children to the school, though, maybe like all parents, I felt mine was a unique case. Our eagerness to leave was ironic, given that Rock Creek Forest is a so-called "magnet school," designed to attract students throughout the county to its much-touted Spanish immer sion program. Here, even kindergartners are taught in Spanish.

That evening, Principal Sandra Walker was fending off a barrage of questions about the school's racial composition. For her it was a painful and recurring ritual of spring. Try as she may, there was no getting around the numbers: Though the school was 40 percent white, the Spanish immersion and English programs were largely divided along racial lines. The immersion program was predominantly white. The English program was 90 percent minority, including both African Americans and Hispanics, a third of whom were studying English as a second language.

The immersion program, as I would learn from several parents in our Bethesda-Chevy Chase neighborhood, had too often become an unspoken haven for white flight. What was meant to be the multicultural pride of the school was now a subterfuge for disgruntled white parents who didn't want their children in an English program many perceived as inferior, largely because it was mostly composed of minority children from a different socioeconomic status. To many of these parents, it was as much a matter of class as race. I never saw any evidence that one program was superior to the other, but in this and every other neighborhood, perception becomes reality. Rock Creek Forest straddles an economic fault line. To the west lies affluent Chevy Chase. To the east, some less prosperous pockets of Silver Spring.

Time and again I heard parents say they begrudgingly placed their children in the Spanish program -- not because of the program but in spite of it. They simply wanted to avoid the much-disparaged English program. Equally disturbing was that school officials privately acknowledged that white flight was a serious problem but preferred to defend the status quo rather than challenge it, lest they be seen as racist or provoke litigation.

In a formal policy statement, the Board of Education declared, "a major purpose of this policy is to provide a framework for actions designed to promote diversity so that the isolation of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups is avoided and the full benefits of integration are achieved." Have those who wrote that high rhetoric looked in on the English program at Rock Creek Forest recently? At 90 percent minority, how much more isolated can these kids be?

It is a corrupting deceit that has claimed many victims. Since neighborhood parents get first choice, the children of white parents usurp the places of other children from around the county who desperately want into the immersion program. Last year, 59 families were turned away.

How could a program designed to promote multiculturalism be twisted into de facto segregation? Today Rock Creek Forest is not one school but two, sharing little but a common wall. The principal insists that the two programs -- English and Spanish -- are academically on par, a point that somehow seems reminiscent of the old "separate but equal" doctrine discredited four decades earlier.

That evening in the library I listened to the principal's half-hearted defense of the system. If we white parents would only place our children in the English program, she explained, the stigma of that program would fade away. It was a desperate and frustrated call by one who had taken the brunt of criticism for a program not of her making. "They { the parents} have created this situation, not the schools," she would tell me later. "We teach whoever comes through the doors."

She is right. The racial divisions of Rock Creek Forest are not the product of deliberate school board policy, but the unintended consequences of good intentions gone awry. Yet after so long, it must be evident to the principal and her superiors at the school board that many parents in this community, unwilling to take on the system, have resigned themselves to using it to their own advantage. Ilook upon this controversy from a somewhat curious perch. My family is interracial -- my two sons are adopted from South Korea. I live on a fully integrated street and have always championed both public schools and diversity. Nor am I a stranger to issues of race in the classroom, having taught elementary school, high school and college. But never did I expect, least of all here in progressive Chevy Chase, to be staring down a time tunnel at bias and racial imbalances remedied elsewhere long ago. I write this now not to embarrass the system or to attack the school (whose dedicated teachers and staff I admire greatly), but out of a conviction that only public debate and scrutiny will persuade the school system to take stock of itself.

My reasons for wanting my elder son transferred from Rock Creek Forest were as complicated as his young life. He was asking some very difficult questions about adoption, his origins and identity. Given that he was Korean-born, and is being raised in an American Jewish family, it seemed to us that the last thing he needed was to first learn to read and write in Spanish. Nor, we felt, would his quest for identity be anything but aggravated were he the only Asian American in a class of African American and Hispanic children. A child psychologist warned us and wrote in a letter to the board that throwing our son into such a complex cultural and ethnic milieu could prove utterly bewildering for him. And frankly, I was offended that minority children -- mine included -- should be ghettoized merely because they wished to go to school in English.

And so in February we applied to transfer to the next closest public school, Rosemary Hills. All we wanted was an "American school" -- a place of genuine racial diversity (which, when last I looked, included whites in the classroom) where my son could learn to read and write in English. Not unreasonable, I thought. But I soon found myself in a bureaucratic maze where racial guidelines were mindlessly invoked and the well-being of a child -- my child -- seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind.

It was four months before we received a response. When we did, our transfer was denied. The reason stunned us. On the form, someone had handwritten "impact on diversity." When I called the school board I was told that Asian Americans could not transfer from Rock Creek Forest. That was the rule. More Asian Americans were needed to boost the diversity profile of the school. This was not about my child or anyone's child. The sad truth is, it was not even about diversity. It was about Montgomery County's strategy for avoiding litigation by showing it had a diversity plan in place.

I couldn't help but wonder what cultural contribution my son could make -- he was just five months old when he left Korea. As a child I'd had my own brushes with antisemitism, but never bearing the imprimatur of government. Given that the school board had already acquiesced in allowing this school to become divided along racial lines, it struck me as the height of hypocrisy that racial diversity should be invoked to block my son's transfer. Then insult to injury: I learned that Rosemary Hills had room for my son and was equally covetous of boosting its Asian American representation. Lost in the slavish adherence to rules was the fact that my son's transfer from one county school to another would have zero net impact on diversity in Montgomery County's schools -- a point I raised with county officials.

And still our appeal was twice denied -- on grounds of race alone. I had always been told that if we made enough of a fuss we might prevail, and so, after several failed attempts appealing to school officials, I decided to raise a ruckus. Within a 24-hour period I contacted the offices of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. and County Councilman Michael L. Subin. All agreed to ask the school board to explain the handling of our case.

I also contacted school board member Alan Cheung, who I admit I picked because his name sounded Korean and I was searching for a sympathetic ear. I found one. The next day he called for a review of our case.

Within a few days, a school official contacted our psychologist, who reiterated the importance of the transfer. Soon after, school board official Robin Confino called me to say the superintendent of schools had approved our son's transfer.

"Thank you," I said.

"I'm sure it's a bittersweet thank you,' " remarked Confino, assistant to the deputy superintendent for instruction. She was right. Six months had passed. A hundred phone calls. Countless letters. Our privacy had been compromised, most after-school care programs were already filled and our faith in the system had been shattered.

Until my experience with the Montgomery County school board I had unabashedly considered myself a liberal Democrat, confident that government, while at times bumbling, did more good than harm. I had not been able to fathom others' paranoia about an over-reaching bureaucracy, or their ridicule of government's role in engineering if not a Great Society, at least a better one. Then Montgomery County provided me with this invaluable though painful civics lesson. Now I understand all too well the passions that fueled the uprising at the polls last November and why individuals less aggressive or politically savvy than I routinely get steamrollered by the system.

Last week, I read in The Washington Post of another Asian American child in the county denied the right to transfer into a French magnet program because of race. I realized that the word "diversity" had undergone some Orwellian transformation, that it was no longer a bridge but a barrier. Somewhere, on the road to integration, the school board took a dreadfully wrong turn. Ted Gup has written for Time, National Geographic, Gentlemen's Quarterly and other magazines. He teaches journalism at Georgetown University.