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L.A.'s Bitter Busing Fight Recalled : Neighborhoods at Odds Over Year-Round Schools

October 22, 1987|ELAINE WOO | Times Education Writer

A decade ago, Los Angeles was wrenched apart by the issue of mandatory busing, which bitterly divided communities along color lines.

Today, neighborhoods across Los Angeles are at odds again. This time the dispute is over year-round schools, and the similarities are haunting.

Although few acknowledge it publicly, thorny questions of race, politics and socioeconomic status lie just beneath the surface of the rhetoric being hurled on both sides of the controversy.

"The same hysteria that there was during busing is there now, only the buzzwords have changed," said Joseph Duff, an attorney for the NAACP who is handling that group's desegregation lawsuit against the school district, which still has not been resolved. "The buzzword now is 'our schools,' 'our neighborhood.' (Anglo parents) . . . are saying, 'Let them have year-round in their neighborhood, but keep it out of ours.'

". . . The equity issue is being missed, overwhelmed," he added. "It's just turning into a raw test of political power--between the Westside and the San Fernando Valley and the rest of the city."

Mandatory busing to achieve integration ended seven years ago but still exists as a means of easing overcrowding--the main issue before the school board in recent years.

Many minority advocates say the adopted solutions are unfair because they force minority youngsters to attend year-round and overcrowded schools or to be bused for miles to reach an uncrowded campus while students in white or affluent neighborhoods have spacious schools and do not have busing.

In an attempt to address this inequity, the board two weeks ago approved a plan for all 618 schools to go year-round in 1989. But on Monday the board shelved the plan, at least until next March, for further public debate.

The year-round proposal has attracted nationwide attention because with 592,000 students, the Los Angeles district would become by far the largest in the country to be entirely year-round.

District officials say year-round school would provide additional classroom seats to ease an overcrowding problem that is choking large sections of the district. Classroom shortages are so severe that more than 30,000 students now are bused to schools with more room, while 130,000 others already attend year-round campuses. Year-round schools are located mainly in Latino and Asian neighborhoods, where a higher birth rate and a steady flow of immigrants are straining campus facilities.

Burden to Minorities

Proponents of a year-round plan, which will come before the board for a second time next March, say that minority communities for too long have shouldered the burden of solving what ought to be a district-wide concern.

Opponents, however, say year-round school is not for everyone, particularly uncrowded schools on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, some of which are even losing students. "We wouldn't have a problem in the world going year-round if the public understood the need for it," said Roberta Weintraub, a school board member who has adamantly opposed year-round plans for the entire district.

Weintraub and others disagree that opposition to year-round schools falls along racial lines. They note that, although the majority of parents at recent board meetings to protest a year-round system were white, a sprinkling of middle-class blacks, Latinos and Asians also raised voices in dissent, apparently unmoved by arguments about equity.

The battle over year-round schools has created strange political alignments, reflecting dramatic demographic changes over the last 20 years, that have confounded politicians.

"Among those opposing it have been some very good friends of mine who were very active in the civil rights movement," said school board President Rita Walters, who is black and represents South-Central and Southwestern Los Angeles. "They see this issue in a very narrow vein, in terms of what happens to them, to their child, and they don't go any further than that with their analysis."

'Reactionary' Attitude

Meanwhile, on the liberal Westside, board member Alan Gershman is trying to balance the needs of minority students, who are being bused in increasing numbers into Westside schools, with the interests of students in mostly Anglo neighborhoods--whose parents have the power of the ballot behind them.

"Politically, my constituency is one that would be identified by and large as moderate to liberal, particularly on social issues," said Gershman, who opposed the year-round plan, "but (it) turns out to be moderate to conservative, and even reactionary," on the year-round issue.

No longer are Anglo students in the majority, as they were in 1963, when the desegregation lawsuit was filed. Today, the Los Angeles school district enrollment is 82% minority, with 56% Latino. Anglos account for 18%, blacks for 18% and Asians for 8%.

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