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Did Conservatives Kill School Busing Because It Was Actually Working?

News of rampant resegregation of schools has been hitting the headlines. Rothstein, at EPI, gave the wince-worthy news that racial segregation in U.S. schools is the worst it has been since 1970. Hannah-Jones, at ProPublica explains, “Since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from forced integration, and many of these districts have followed the path…back to segregation.”

The 1980s were associated with the most school integration, and also associated with the greatest declines in the achievement gap for minority students. Since then, the achievement gap has closed much more slowly, sometimes even widening, especially as resegregation was occurring. The mechanism most often associated with integration was busing, but from every corner of the country, conservatives fought it. They went out of their way to make it fail.

In my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, school desegregation used to be taken very seriously. People believed it had to be.  Nearly all of the African American residents in Waterloo live in one corner of the city on the Northeast side. There used to be one high school for them, and one for the white teens. There was also a large, private Catholic high school, but it was also very white. Community leaders joined with the rest of the nation in the early 1970s, and implemented a busing program, as well as opening a third high school where diversity would be emphasized. I was a toddler at the time, so I wasn’t around to hear about grumbling, of which I am certain there was plenty. Most of the children who were bussed were African American, and they went miles across the river to the predominantly white schools. East High remained predominantly low-income whites and African Americans.  Interestingly, in a United States Commission on Civil Rights report on desegregation in Waterloo, IA, they explain that school choice was tried, and failed:

“In fall, 1968, the school board proposed open enrollment (allowing children to attend any school with space) as the principal means to desegregate. In effect, however, this only permitted the more daring black parents to send their children to predominantly white schools in other attendance areas.”

What happened next was a natural social experiment that I can only report on from a single observer’s perspective. The initial years of desegregation in the mid-1970s may have been very nasty. They likely were, because racists in the white communities where African American children were now going to school would have no doubt reacted badly. Fights probably ensued. However, by the 1980s, when I was old enough to witness social relations, things had improved. By no means was everything perfect. Our schools were no different than the rest of the country in terms of having some of the phenomenon of lunchroom segregation. However, over time, interracial relationships started to build. There were friendships, dating, teammates, etc. There were always at least a couple of white youth in the Black Studies class offered at each high school. If the arrangement was good for white people because it was teaching them to overcome racism, it appeared even more beneficial for the African American students. The reason is simply that they had access to well-funded schools with rich extracurricular activities, busing kept students safe to and from school in dangerous neighborhoods, and they didn’t fall prey to the “failing public schools” mantra.

Waterloo, Iowa stopped busing in the early 1990s. Shortly after that time, a problem crept up in the community that was not seen before: gangs. The crime rate spiked in Waterloo by 1997 and remained steadily high to the point where Waterloo now has a murder rate above the national average, and it has not seen reductions over time. It only ranks as “safer” than 12% of U.S. cities due to its high rates of  burglary, assault, rape, and forced entry. The gang issue has become severe enough that students must now wear rigid uniforms to public school, unheard of during the years when I was a student there. This new problem came even as violent youth crimes are on the decline nationwide.  Racists would try to say that the crime problems are due to the significant rise in the minority population in the county over the past two decades. However, the crime rate spiked before the population surge.

School districts across the country have done exactly what Waterloo, IA, and Denver, CO did. They stopped busing. Maybe they thought it wasn’t necessary anymore or a judge did. Maybe they thought it was too expensive. Maybe too many voters put busing on the ballot and had it eliminated. But, no matter what the mechanism was, the end of busing was the end of a social experiment that was working in many places, regardless of what conservatives claim, including a few conservative African American critics. Of course, there were very racist cities, like Boston, that fought integration so hard that when busing was implemented, white families pulled their children out of public schools to put them in private schools. Other cities saw families move in order to avoid having their children going to school with minorities. Every social policy has unintended negative consequences, and busing had its own. However, herculean efforts to kill busing came from a place of deep racism, and by killing the policy through court challenges and local opposition brought us to today’s resegregation.

Notably, a 2006 BusinessWeek article on Bill Gates presaged the current slew of articles on resegregation in describing a Denver, CO school:

“[Manual High School] had been a respected school for many years, with a mix of middle class white kids, most of whom were bussed in, and less well-off minorities. The school scored well on tests overall and fielded outstanding sports teams. But when forced busing ended in 1996, Manuals’ student body quickly became 90% minority and much poorer. Soon the school was dead last on state tests, with a mile-high dropout rate of about 50%.”

The article goes on to describe how the Bill Gates Foundation intervened at Manual High by splitting it into three smaller high schools. It was a colossal disaster. All he did was make three schools of students with concentrated poverty instead of one, and all three had numerous dysfunctions. It never seemed to dawn on Gates or the school officials that the best solution might be to reintegrate the school.

The Supreme Court’s 1974 ruling in Milliken vs. Bradley made expansive, socially thoughtful busing programs nearly impossible. But why is busing a potentially successful policy conservatives tantrumed out of existence? People are still residentially segregated by race. If everyone attends their local school, people will, often, be segregated at school as well. Hannah-Jones explains how residential segregation also may not be the reason for school segregation in many cities in the nation either; instead, it is the result of racist, gerrymandered, districting policy.

How do you ensure that schools in Denver, CO are not 90% minority and 90% white, respectively? Is it  worthwhile to try to fix it? Are reductions in the achievement gap, interactions between the races, and lower dropout rates for minority students worth it? Today, we’re left with few options. Conservatives champion “school choice” or “voucher” programs as an alternative, but there is no evidence this privatization affects achievement and it doesn’t reduce segregation. For anyone who cares about challenging a segregated society, the challenge of overcoming racism to implement constructive policy in this area is going to be a constant battle.

Deborah Foster

Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.

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