Debate puts ‘busing’ back in the news

Three years ago, I read Matt Delmont’s “Why Busing Failed” and wrote a post about it. It never occurred to me that the book’s theme would emerge as a theme in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Yet here we are. Since last Thursday’s Democratic candidate debate, when Kamala Harris called out Joe Biden for working with segregationists to oppose busing, the reality of America’s segregated schools has become part of the national conversation.

Reporters are revisiting the history of school desegregation efforts – especially in Berkeley, California, where Harris rode a bus as a young student. And pundits are weighing in with various hot takes, often to the effect that busing is unpopular and would be a losing issue for Democrats.

But as Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth, has made clear, the busing story isn’t straightforward. Court-ordered busing made great progress at desegregating public schools. But resistance by white parents in Northern cities captured the media lens, and politicians jumped on board.

Today, the conventional wisdom is that we tried busing and it didn’t work. It’s not that simple.

“In public-policy debates and popular memory … the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians,” Delmont writes this week in the Atlantic. “As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.”

Harris’ confrontation with Biden was extraordinary because it brought a student story out of the shadows. “And you know,” she said, “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

From her perspective, busing worked fine. She credited much of her life success to the experience. Biden, it appeared, didn’t know how to respond.

It’s hard to know whether this conversation will be prominent in the election, but it ought to be.

U.S. courts have mostly abandoned school segregation, and it’s unlikely that politicians will call for a return to busing. But busing isn’t and never was the point. Research continues to show that students benefit, academically and socially, from attending diverse schools. And there are many methods, aside from busing, to promote integration, including purposeful drawing of school attendance boundaries, “controlled choice” programs and better policies for siting low-cost housing.

At the very least, candidates who profess to care about education should be addressing the fact that American schools have been growing more segregated by race, ethnicity and economic status, some 65 years after the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unconstitutional.

At the national, state and local level, voters should insist on it.

2 thoughts on “Debate puts ‘busing’ back in the news

  1. It should be interesting to see if school integration via busing reappears as we near the next election. It find it interesting that she contributes her life successes to being bused for integration purposes while in elementary school and then chose to attend an HBCU to further her education. If this point comes up during the campaigning season it will be interesting to see how she responds.

  2. Since in the 70’s the idea of forced integration of neighborhoods was not on the table, the solution was to bus children to better schools – in whiter neighborhoods.
    The new threat in California urban districts is “charter schools” that take public money and don’t have to meet Ed Code standards. In Oakland, the School Board closes schools in low income and majority black or brown communities, claiming the schools’ test scores are not high enough. (One would think actually investing in the schools to provide the services and materials they need would be a more obvious and effective approach, but that’s not what this is about,) The local schools, the only ones that children can reach easily, are then turned into charters – which are far more segregated than the public schools were. The School Board’s latest ploy was to close a middle school and tell the children they could go to “better” schools – although Roots had been an amazing community and supportive to these children, but this time there is no busing – not even a plan to pay for the bus fare for these kids to travel to other “better” schools – that have no opening for the extra students.
    The only way to have quality education in integrated schools is to put all our money into public schools and get rid of the charters and the “innovation schools”. Community schools with stable staff and solid curriculum for all children should be our bottom line. Every child deserves an excellent education at their neighborhood school – and if we provide that, we promote integration of neighborhoods as well.

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