As its sponsors tell it, passage of Proposition 1 on California's Nov. 6 ballot will mean the end of the forced busing that has triggered massive white flight from the Los Angeles school system.
Supporters of the state constitution amendment say that unless it is passed millions of California children, starting at the kindergarten age of 5, will have to be bused to far-away schools in strange neighborhoods. Opponents, most of them black leaders, consider the amendment the product of "racism" and say it will mean the end of effective school desegregation in the state.
The volley of warnings aside, some partisans, pro and con, question whether Proposition 1 will accomplish anything at all. They see it as a sad illustration of a recurrent process in American politics in which emotions and expectations are raised by a measure that will neither fulfill the claims of its supporters nor validate the fears of its opponents.
"The only thing we know for sure about Proposition 1 is that it will provide full employment for the lawyers in our society," says Los Angeles School Board member Kathleen Brown Rice, sister of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. and an opponent of both the initiative and mandatory busing.
When the initiative was drafted earlier this year, its purpose seemed clear enough. It's principal author, state Sen. Alan Robbins, a Democrat who represents Los Angeles' largely white, middle-class San Fernando Valley district, hoped to stop ongoing busing in the vast Los Angeles School District by substituting federal desegregation standards for state guidelines.
Under California law, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court, public school desegregation is required where "reasonable and feasible," regardless of the cause of the segregation in question. The U.S. Supreme Court, at the time of Proposition 1's drafting, required school desegregation only in situations where segregation had resulted from intentional acts of discrimination on the part of school system officials.
In two Ohio cases this summer, however, the U.S. Supreme Court toughened the federal standard by putting the burden of proof on school boards to show that segregation was not the result of official action. The now-deceased state judge who heard the original 1963 Los Angeles case that eventually resulted in mandatory busing here found that city school authorities had acted in discriminatory fashion; his findings were affirmed by the California Supreme Court.
Consequently, attorney William Shea, who advises the Los Angeles School Board on desegregation, has told the board that more busing, not less, might be required under Proposition 1.
Robbins, who acknowledges that his proposition is far from airtight, says that discrimination on the part of officials would have to be proved, not assumed, under the federal standards. He also says that, up to now, federal guidelines have limited one-way bus travel for students to 30 minutes, while trips of an hour or more are commonplace in Los Angeles under the current busing scheme. In any case, both sides expect to be in court contesting the results the day after the election.
The legal tangle has added confusion to an emotionally charged social issue that has kept Los Angeles in turmoil for the past three years. Desegregation was ordered in the fall of 1976 after a 13-year court battle. It took two more years of litigation before the school board finally launched the desegregation plan now in effect, a combination of mandatory and voluntary busing, in September 1978. The plan, in turn, has spurred Proposition 1.
Some 72,000 white students have left the Los Angeles public schools in the last four years, leaving whites a dwindling minority in the school system.
The face of the future is most clearly seen in the city's kindergartens, where the white and black populations each comprises 18 percent of enrollment. Hispanic children account for 58 percent of kindergarten enrollment; Asians and Filipinos make up 6 percent.
Except for blacks, who are divided on the subject, the major ethnic groups have been consistent and united in their opposition to mandatory busing. g
State Sen. Diane Watson, a former school board member and California's first black woman state senator, says that opposition to busing by Hispanic citizens has been a major obstacle to meaningful school desegregation.
"They [the Hispanics, who are chiefly Mexican-Americans] want to keep their children in the barrio and fear that once they are sent outside, their bilingual programs will suffer," Watson says.
One emotional reflection of this view comes from John Serrano Jr., the plaintiff in a famous California Supreme Court case which led to a decision that all schoolchildren are entitled to equal educational opportunity. dIn a ballot argument favoring the proposition, Serrano said:
"Forced busing to achieve integration is a sham. To force a child to spend three hours on a bus and five hours in a class does nothing more than change the color balance of a few schools for a few hours."
Hardly anyone, including the members of the committee that is fighting Proposition 1, doubts that it will pass. Polls in California have shown an overwhelming majority against manadatory busing, and the antibusing forces in Los Angeles demonstrated their ballot strength earlier this year when they recalled School Board President Howard Miller, a busing advocate.
A statewide survey taken by pollster Mervin Field in mid-September found that 78 percent of California voters disapproved of busing to obtain a racial balance in schools, but that only 30 percent had heard of Proposition 1. These 30 percent were evenly divided on the question of whether Proposition 1 would increase busing, decrease it or accomplish nothing.
"We've encountered confusion on ballot propositions before but not this type of confusion," Field says. "Even a knowledgeable person has trouble figuring out how to vote his bias."
Sen. Watson and Linda Hunt of Los Angeles, the leaders of the opposition campaign, concede that Proposition 1 probably will pass but hope to achieve a respectable vote against it. They would like to ensure that, among other things, Proposition 1 becomes a political albatross for Robbins, who is expected to run for mayor in 1981. He was defeated in 1977 by incumbent Mayor Tom Bradley, a black, in a city where fewer than one-fifth of the registered voters are black.
Since then, there have been divisions in the minority coalition of blacks, Mexican-Americans and Jews that helped Bradley win the mayoralty twice. That division is keenest on the busing issue, where the antibusing leaders -- Robbins and school board members Bobbie Fiedler and Roberta Weintraub -- are Jewish.
Fiedler dismisses the religious line-up as coincidental, saying that there is heavy Jewish involvement in the antibusing movement because "Jews tend to be activists."
Kathleen Brown Rice believes that the principal division on the issue is one of class, not race or ethnicity. Middle-class parents in the San Fernando Valley of all races and creeds generally oppose busing, she says.
Though she favors integration and has been considered a busing advocate during most of her term on the school board, Rice has turned against mandatory busing, too, on what she calls solely pragmatic grounds. "It doesn't work, she says. For her, the "meaninglessness" of the Proposition 1 debate reflects the entire busing issue, which she compares with U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
"In Vietnam the goal was critical and important, but we kept pouring more technology and money and the hearts and souls of a people into a project that just didn't work," Rice says. "The busing issue is like that. We need something that will get us closer to the goal."