The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court Tuesday to let Oklahoma City children attend the schools nearest to their homes even if that results in racial imbalance.

"The school board has no realistic control over where people choose to live," Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, the administration's top courtroom lawyer, said in arguing that Oklahoma City's schools should be freed from a court-ordered desegregation plan.But Julius Chambers, the New York City lawyer representing those black parents who challenged the neighborhood school plan, said the court should not turn back the clock. He opposed the plan adopted by the city school board in 1985 for students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

"You should not let the school district in Oklahoma City, or in any other city, reinstate the same assignment practices that caused segregation in the past," Chambers argued.

How the justices resolve the Oklahoma City dispute - a decision is expected by July - could determine the future racial makeup of public schools in hundreds of U.S. cities.

At issue is what once-segregated school districts can do after achieving racial balance under court-ordered plans.

The court must decide whether school districts like Oklahoma City's may abandon forced busing and other desegregation tactics once a federal court rules they have become fully integrated.

Ronald Day, representing the city's school board, said residential segregation of the races "is a phenomenon over which this school board, indeed no school board, has control."

Starr, representing the federal government, warned the court against "placing undue emphasis on the numbers." He added, "No one is assigned on the grounds of race."

Justice Thurgood Marshall, the court's only black member and the winning lawyer in the 1954 Supreme Court case that outlawed racially segregated public schools, challenged Starr's assertions.

"The poor Afro-American kid is still in the same school," Marshall said. "It remains a segregated school."

A federal judge ruled in 1977 that Oklahoma City schools had achieved full integration, and eight years later city school officials returned to a neighborhood schools plan for children in kindergarten through fourth grade.