In last week’s Democratic presidential debate, one of the most heated moments of the night occurred when Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) challenged former vice president Joe Biden on the issue of school integration. Speaking about her own experience taking part in a school desegregation program in Berkeley, California, Senator Harris criticized Biden for his past opposition of integration efforts, asking him, “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?”
The fact that school integration came up at all during the debate was noticeable. Our nation’s schools are, by most measures, more racially segregated now than they were in the 1970s, even as decades of research demonstrate the benefits of racial and socioeconomic school integration. Nevertheless, presidential candidates, and the federal government more generally, have done little to address school segregation in that same time. As my colleague Richard Kahlenberg has noted, Harris and Biden’s exchange, alongside the inclusion of school integration in the education platforms and public remarks of several other Democratic candidates, brings a sorely needed increase in attention to school integration in federal policy debates.
The discussion around “busing” paints a misleading portrait of both causes of school segregation and the nature of viable solutions to promote integration.
However, one unfortunate consequence of Harris and Biden’s exchange, and subsequently, of most of the media coverage that has followed, is that the conversation about school integration has begun to revolve around the issue of “busing.” That term, and the obsession with integration’s impact on student commutes, is a narrow way of framing school integration efforts rooted in racist opposition to desegregation. The discussion around “busing” paints a misleading portrait of both causes of school segregation and the nature of viable solutions to promote integration. Here are three reasons why we should stop centering debates about school integration around “busing.”
1. “Busing” is a racially coded term that was used by white protesters who opposed efforts to integrate schools.
To equate school integration with “busing” is to accept the framing that its opponents chose in a deliberate effort to undermine integration efforts. Spearheading an argument for integration with “busing” is a little like debating “Obamacare” instead of the Affordable Care Act or the “death tax” instead of the estate tax; a coined term designed to undercut the policy it names becomes that policy’s headliner. In his book Why Busing Failed, historian Matthew F. Delmont traces the focus on “busing” as a means of school desegregation back to the use of the term as part of deliberate shifts in popular and political rhetoric placing the concerns of white parents above the civil rights of students of color.
In New York City in 1959, for example, long before the peak of school integration efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, white parents protested a plan to integrate the city’s schools by holding signs that read “Bussing [sic] Creates Fussing” and “Neighborhood Schools for All.” An observer might have (incorrectly) surmised that these parents were upset because their children were going to have to endure long bus rides under the proposed plan. In fact, no white students were to be transferred under the proposal. On the contrary, the plan that these parents were opposing proposed instead to transfer 400 black and Puerto Rican students from predominantly black and Latinx schools in Brooklyn to mostly white schools in Queens. Meanwhile, white students in New York City were already being bussed long distances, past predominantly black and Latinx schools, to all-white schools throughout the 1950s, without protest from parents.
Clearly, racial mixing—and not busing—was at the root of these white parents’ fears and protests. But, somewhat like falsely recasting the Civil War as a conflict over states’ rights instead of slavery, framing school integration as an issue of “busing” provided some moral cover for these parents’ anti-integration sentiments.
By the 1970s, when the federal government stepped up efforts to enforce Brown v. Board, including through plans that would bring students from different districts and neighborhoods together in the same schools in order to achieve racial diversity, the language of integration as “busing” was well established. This framing provided a generation of white Americans with, at best, an easy out from wrestling with the tensions between fulfilling their family’s school preferences and upholding the civil rights of all students or, at worst, a politically palatable alibi for racist views.
2. In many instances, school integration does not require significant increases in students’ travel times.
To focus the conversation about school integration on “busing” is to assume that integration in most or all cases requires longer bus rides for students than they would otherwise have. But that is simply not the case.
To be sure, residential segregation does play a large role in contributing to school segregation, as my colleagues Richard Kahlenberg and Kimberly Quick explain in a recent report. The legacy of explicitly racist policies like redlining and racially restrictive covenants, as well as insidious exclusionary zoning policies that continue today to discriminate based on income, is that many neighborhoods were specifically engineered to be segregated. That segregation is often reflected in schools, and the geographic separation of students of different racial and economic backgrounds means that integration may require transportation.
But school district lines and school attendance zones also often exacerbate this segregation. As research from the education organization EdBuild has shown, there are examples of school districts across the country where gerrymandered boundaries carve out high-poverty school districts, like Ansley Public Schools in Nebraska, from more affluent surrounding jurisdictions. And in many cities, the attendance zones of schools with strikingly different demographics may lie just a few blocks apart. According to a 2014 study by Southern Methodist University professor Meredith P. Richards, gerrymandered school attendance zones more often than not actually create higher levels of segregation than if all children simply attended the school closest to their house.
In many cities, the attendance zones of schools with strikingly different demographics may lie just a few blocks apart.
Undoing these segregative district and school boundaries results in opportunities to integrate schools without significant increases in students’ travel times. In Chicago, for example, the district recently merged two adjacent schools, one racially diverse but affluent and the other 98 percent black and predominantly low-income, to create a more racially and socioeconomically integrated school for all students.
3. Many successful school integration efforts involve parent choice.
A focus on “busing” also tends to assume that school integration efforts necessarily limit parents’ choices. Anti-busing protesters argued that these desegregation efforts were being forced on parents and communities. Biden even returned to this idea in his response to Harris’ question about whether or not he agreed he was wrong to oppose busing in the past: “I did not oppose busing in America,” he replied. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
Reframing the conversation around the “forced” element of school desegregation plans, just like the deployment of the term “busing,” however, is another distraction from the real issues at stake. Biden supported anti-busing amendments that prevent states and districts from using any federal funds to support student transportation for integration. (One of those amendments remains today, although some members of Congress are actively working to remove it.) For decades, these amendments have limited the ability for states and districts to spend federal dollars on transportation as part of local integration plans—even if efforts to do so would have widespread community support.
In fact, many of the most successful school integration programs in operation today combine civil rights protections with an element of parent choice. So-called “controlled choice” or equitable choice programs in districts like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Louisville (Jefferson County), Kentucky, and Champaign, Illinois, allow families to rank their school preferences, and then, based on those preferences and an algorithm to ensure diversity, assign students to each school. These equitable choice programs work by placing different pedagogical themes or curricular offerings in schools across the district, enticing some parents to select schools outside their immediate neighborhood in order to get access to a different educational program.
In Greater Hartford, Connecticut, dozens of inter-district magnet schools promote integration across district lines by attracting families from urban and suburban communities with in-demand offerings such as an International Baccalaureate curriculum, Montessori education, or arts programs. Such programs bolster school integration without the implications of reduced parent choice associated with “busing.”
Harris and Biden helped bring the long-overdue conversation about school integration to center stage, both for the Democratic presidential candidates and for the country. But language matters in policy debates. We can, and should, talk about school integration without narrowing the debate to the oversimplified discussion of “busing.” Our nation’s children deserve a robust debate and strong education policies that put their needs, not the concerns of white parents, past or present, first.