Short of the words "Red Sox," no phrase is as likely to inflame this tribalistic city as "school busing." So not surprisingly, Boston's decision last week to abandon race as a factor in public school assignments has set off alarm bells among those who fear the clock will be turned back on a quarter century of desegregation efforts that began with mandatory busing.

Schools and universities nationwide--including school systems in Montgomery County, Md., and Arlington, Va.--are reexamining the definition of educational equity and the role of racial criteria in student admissions, while courts have been increasingly challenging and striking down racial preferences as unconstitutional.

But closing the book on race-based school selection is especially powerful here in Boston, where boycotts, protests and violence followed a federal judge's desegregation ruling in 1974. Faced with a pending federal lawsuit alleging the current system discriminates against white children, school committee members voted 5 to 2 to exclude race from assignment considerations rather than take on the changed tenor of the times and risk court intervention.

"There was little probability that we would prevail on the continued use of race as a component of the controlled choice student assignment plan," said Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of Boston's public schools. "It's the right thing to do, given that we're in no way backing off from our commitment to choice [and] . . . to improving quality across the board."

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino agreed. "Every time we've gone up to the courts, we've lost," he said, referring to a federal court decision last year that struck down racial preferences at Boston Latin, one of three exam schools, where students are admitted based on academic merit, where they live, where their siblings go to school and lottery number. "Why are we going to take that chance?"

Others greeted the decision with unrestrained disgust. They predicted an eventual return to the days of unevenly funded, racially imbalanced schools and the onslaught of more discrimination lawsuits. Most parents are satisfied with the present policy, so why change it, they asked.

"The vote was a terrible one. The school committee turned against what has brought Boston a peaceful school existence for years," said Charles V. Willie, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the chief architects of the controlled choice system. "The school committee suffered from amnesia. . . . To choose a student assignment plan that is based largely on neighborhood is to resegregate the city."

The controlled choice plan has been in effect since 1989, shortly after the city's public schools were considered to be sufficiently integrated and court-ordered busing ended. Under the plan, students were allowed to choose among schools in one of three large geographic zones. Assignments took into account race as well as place of residence, sibling preference and lottery number.

The exclusion of race is the only element that will change under the new plan, and critics charge that by excluding race, too much significance will be placed on where a child lives. Priority in school assignments already is given to students living in the immediate vicinity of their chosen school, and children in some of Boston's less integrated neighborhoods could find themselves in racially isolated classrooms or filling the corridors of less desirable schools, they said.

The parents of privileged children will presumably look out for themselves, they said.

"Everybody has moments when they're fighting for their kids, but everyone gets a better deal when you create a working community where all the kids are doing well," said Linda Roistacher, the mother of two high school students who opposes the elimination of race as a factor. "They're rushing through this policy, and they haven't thought it through. The kids and the parents are the ones who will bear the brunt of this lunacy."

The issue of giving priority to neighborhood children is a valid concern and deserves to be addressed, Payzant said. But he and others are quick to note that the Boston of today is not the same as the Boston of the 1970s.

At the time busing began, the city's public school population was 52 percent white, 37 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. Much has changed, the result of white flight and local immigration trends. The students in Boston's 129 public schools today are 16 percent white, 49 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian. In addition, many neighborhoods have become more racially mixed, city officials said.

When Boston Latin School was forced to drop race as a selection factor, the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to the school this year fell by only 2 percent from the previous year--not the dramatic decrease predicted by some.

If race had not been considered for admissions this past year, fewer than 1,000 students new to the system or moving into the transition grades of kindergarten, 1, 6 and 9 would have been affected, according to a study conducted by the city. Of those, about half the students would have received their higher choice school.

"There are some concerns that we will go back to all-white and all-black neighborhoods," said Tracey Lynch, a school committee spokeswoman. "But the reality is that, given what the city and the schools already look like, it doesn't look at all likely that we would go back to one-race schools. We can't. We don't have one-race neighborhoods."

Like other urban areas--including Indianapolis, Denver and Cleveland--Boston is left trying to find ways to improve poor education results and lagging academic achievement among minority students without relying on race preference policies.

Plans to build five new neighborhood-based schools in long-neglected communities are in the works, backed by Menino's goal of allowing every student to walk to school within the next six years. But that does not come soon enough for parents who have filed the lawsuit now pending against the city, said their attorney, Chester Darling.

Darling said he plans to ask for immediate removal of race as a factor in student assignments instead of waiting until September 2000, adding that he remains skeptical of the city's future intentions. "One swallow," he said, "does not a spring make."

CAPTION: Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino speaks at news conference last week on city's decision to abandon race as an admissions factor for public schools.