FOR YEARS, many whites and an increasing number of blacks have argued that compulsory school busing is itself an evil, sometimes worse than racial segregation. Some, like Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, think busing is too intrusive and burdensome, with bad side effects on white support for public schools and on the social fabric generally. The administration seems willing to tolerate a great deal of continued racial segregation in order to avoid a busing order. It even wants to overturn some existing court-ordered plans. Others, including an increasing number of blacks, stress that controversial busing is too costly in political and other terms, can actually undercut the quality of schools in black communities, often shuttles black and white children among equally abysmal schools with little discernible gain, and distracts everyone from the most important issue: good education.

The awkward point for both camps of busing critics is that emphasizing school quality and wholly ignoring racial composition, in places where blacks have been excluded from white schools by one or another means, sounds a lot like "separate but equal." That doctrine was announced by the Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, and used until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 as the constitutional excuse for Jim Crow. In fact, one popular reading of Brown was that separate is inherently unequal--necessarily a violation of the Constitution's equal-protection guarantee if accomplished through actions of the government. To suggest, less than 30 years later, that racial considerations are immaterial is to step backward from a great and necessary advance.

It is, of course, easier to have a firm conclusion about all of this if you are unaffected by some of the difficult realities. These include the hardship that busing can cause in some circumstances, especially where an ill-considered, excessive plan is imposed. There is also the important fact that excellent education can occur in a classroom full of black kids if the resources and energy are there--something often overlooked by good folk of both races. And busing is sometimes used as a kind of hostage tactic to obtain a fair deal for black children. This strategy makes less sense where blacks already have a good measure of political control over the schools and the finances for them.

But there is also the continuing reality of separate societies within one nation, in great measure the result of a not-too-distant history of officially sanctioned racial segregation in schools and other institutions. Closing that separation, which is so devastating in economic and social terms, must remain an imperative. The radical revisers of civil rights policies have a heavy burden to demonstrate that their proposed methods, such as avoiding busing at all costs, will be at least as effective, not simply more comfortable for the majority or, for that matter, the minority. Minus such a demonstration, busing must remain one of the methods available for pursuing two related but not identical goals implicit in the Constitution: an end to racial segregation and a fulfillment of the promise of equal educational opportunity.