TWO YEARS AGO some thought that Montgomery County school officials were rushing into a bureaucratic and political thicket when they voluntarily drafted a school desegregation plan that involved some mandatory busing - despite a federal government ruling that the county school system was in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Federal officials had said that the county's racially imbalanced schools, most of which were in the down-county area that adjoins Washington, resulted from shifting population and housing patterns, not a policy of discrimination. Still, county school officials acted.
Now, although the four-phase plan is only half completed, the good sense of their action is becoming clear. By acting early they involved only a relatively small number of schools (29) and students (about 10,000) in a small geographic area. This gave them more flexibility to tailor the plan to the specific educational needs of different parts of the down-county area.
For example, this year school officials, working with parents, established the seven elementary schools in one target area as "magnet schools" - each has a distinct and separate educational philosophy - and then revised the transfer requirements so that students could easily transfer from one school to another. So now parents of the 1,800 elementary school students in the ethnically mixed Takoma Park-East Silver Spring area can choose among schools that offer a highly structured, traditional approach, or team-teaching and continuous-progress techniques, or a French-language program in which all pupils are taught in French. Or they can choose a school offering a Spanish bilingual, bicultural program, or one whose program demands heavy parental involvement.
By offering these choices, school officials hope that parents' individual preferences will lead to desegregation of the schools without mandatory busing. Preliminary statistics indicate that this is beginning to take place. School officials hope to extend the magnet-school concept to the other areas as well.
Obviously, Montgomery County enjoys several important advantages over urban and other surburban areas caught up in the thorny process of school desegregation: It is wealthier and politically more progressive and has a very small minority population. So school officials don't pretend to see in what's happening there a solution for every other area's problems - and neither do we. But the constructive approach of both Montgomery County school officials and parents shows what can happen if there is a broad commitment to integrated and quality education.