THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a constitutional amendment to bar "forced" busing. The amendment, on which no hearings have been held and little debate conducted, has reached the House floor because 218 members signed a discharge petition. House leaders do not expect the amendment to win the two-thirds vote necessary for passage. Indeed, there is doubt it will get even 218 votes. There should be. This amendment is a disaster.
The language of the amendment contains two sleepers. One rests in the section barring courts or school systems from compelling students to attend any public school other than that nearest their homes. Although drafted with the goal of preventing busing for the purpose of achieving racial balance, this section would also bar busing for other purposes, such as reducing overcrowding or adjusting student populations to meet teacher shortages or strikes. By trying to avoid writing race into the Constitution, the authors have succeeded in trying to write local flexibility out.
The other sleeper lies in the part of the amendment giving Congress power not only to enforce this amendment - the traditional boiler plate - but also "to insure equal educational opportunities for all students." This would increase greatly the control Congress could exercise over all public schools. Under it, Congress could require, for example, that school boards change the ways they raise and spend money as long as the changes it dictated were an effort to equalize opportunity.
These objections to the busing amendment would not exist if it had been more thoughtfully drafted. And it is possible that amendments to cure these defects will be presented on the House floor. But rewriting the Constitution, where the meaning of each word is often critical, is hardly an exercise to be undertaken on the floor of the House.
The fundamental objection to any anti-busing amendment, of course, is that it is an attempt to write a social-policy preference into the Constitution. With two exceptions, that document has never specifically endorsed any social or economic policy. The two exceptions were slavery and prohibition. In light of the way those two policies ended - with a war and a repealing amendment - putting such preferences into the basic instrument of government is clearly unwise.
Busing of school children for almost any purpose is less than ideal. But it can be useful and sometimes is the only tool available to break up historic patterns of open discrimination. By voting to bar its use in any situation, the House would be declaring that the constitutional rights of some students to equal treatment can never be enforced. The House should reject this effort to cripple the ability of courts and school boards to correct racial injustices.