The school integration community received a jolt last week when “busing” and voluntary school integration unexpectedly took center stage at the Democratic primary. I’m sure that readers of this blog are familiar with the exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, and have likely seen much of the analysis that followed. In case you want to read further or missed some of the big stories, I’ve pulled together a collection of news articles and related resources. Everything is organized according to the themes (in bold below) that I found most common in the stories I read- credit to Erica Frankenberg for her help coming up with these.
I should note- there’s a lot out there. I’ve tried to read as much as I can, but certainly haven’t read everything. I’ll be updating this post as more stuff comes out- please feel free to use comments or tweet to us (@psu_civilrights) to let us know what we should include. (And, I also know there’s lots of stuff like this out there, but I’m focusing on pieces that add productively to the conversation about school integration.)
“Busing” was (and remains) an effective strategy for integration. And, research has likewise proven the effectiveness of school integration.
- “What do we know? In the most basic sense, [busing efforts] did succeed. School segregation dropped substantially as courts and the federal government put pressure on local districts to integrate.”
- ““School integration didn’t fail,” Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson, who has conducted some of the most far-reaching research on school integration, recently argued. “The only failure is that we stopped pursuing it and allowed the reign of segregation to return.” To isolate the impact of court-ordered school integration in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Johnson used two strategies. First, he compared students in the same school district right before and after court-ordered integration was put in place. Second, he compared pairs of siblings, when one went to integrated schools but the other didn’t.”
- “His conclusions were similar: integration helped black students academically and into adulthood. Often, the argument against integration efforts is that white students will get a worse education as a result. Most research finds that’s not the case.”
This lines up with research highlighted in an earlier post on the benefits of school integration.
Many pieces also raised questions about the relevance of “busing” today. I thought this thread from Will Stancil offered a useful perspective on this question. He uses New Jersey as an example, though the trend – of diversity in suburban communities, especially – extends to other states as well and has big implications for what “busing” might look like today (and how it would be different than in the 70’s).
“Busing” as a political framing was used effectively by integration opponents to disguise their opposition behind race-neutral terms.
Many of the articles here cite/quote Matt Delmont, whose work – most notably his 2016 book “Why Busing Failed” – leads the way on this topic. Delmont wrote a piece in the Atlantic, where he argues that:
- “The successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.”
- “The controversy was driven by white opposition to school desegregation, not by the use of school buses. Students in the United States had long ridden buses to school. Buses made the modern public-school system possible, enabling multigrade elementary schools and comprehensive high schools to replace one-room schools. Buses had long been used in the South—as well as in New York, Boston, and many other northern cities—to maintain segregation. This form of transportation was not controversial for white parents. Put more starkly, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; busing was not.”
Of course, this opposition was perhaps most virulent in Boston, where the “busing” term featured prominently as a cover for racist policy.
Delmont was also very active on twitter after the debate. He very helpfully organized all of his Harris/Biden-related threads here:
“Busing” is not the only strategy for school integration.
This short (34 min) podcast came out earlier this year, but it’s obviously relevant to the Harris/Biden exchange. It features educational historian Ansley Erickson who wrote about Nashville’s court-ordered desegregation plan – which relied primarily on “busing” – in “Making the Unequal Metropolis.” (Subject of an earlier post on this blog.) On the podcast, she says:
- “Thinking about 65 years beyond Brown, what we might notice is that the tools that we were using to attack segregation have always been smaller than the tools that we used to build it. So it’s true that busing for many people — busing for school desegregation, for example — felt like a massive intervention in what they thought their relationship was between where they lived, where their kids would go. But when you measure it against the federal and state policies and private actions that built the segregated landscape, it’s actually relatively modest.”
Consistent with Erickson’s argument, several pieces this week highlight integration strategies that don’t rely on transportation:
- On the Century Foundation’s website, Richard Kahlenberg notes that “the federal government currently invests 151 times as much money addressing the effects of poverty and concentrated poverty as it does to prevent or undo concentrations of poverty in the first place. We call for boosting federal spending on integration by $500 million; adopting an Economic Fair Housing Act to reduce exclusionary zoning that discriminates by income and race; and requiring federal pre-clearance of efforts by school districts to secede.”
- Also at the Century Foundation, Halley Potter argues that “In many instances, school integration does not require significant increases in students’ travel times.” In particular, “school district lines and school attendance zones also often exacerbate this segregation. 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.”
Berkeley’s integration story is unique and instructive.
Although there was staunch opposition to school desegregation in Berkeley, the program that eventually included a young Kamala Harris is one of the most successful and innovative in the country. Several pieces detailed Berkeley’s long history with integration.
- “Busing was really when Berkeley split and became leftist because a lot of people who couldn’t handle that change, they left,” said Jef Findley, a librarian at the Berkeley Public Library specializing in city history, who helped make an oral history of the city’s busing and desegregation. “The moderate, pro-business rightist town became a leftist town.”
- “Berkeley was different. The opposition to integration in Berkeley was quieter. An attempt to recall the school board failed.”
And, a similar piece in the LA Times includes additional background on Berkeley:
- “School integration can change attitudes — that is the key factor,” Sullivan [Berkeley school superintendent] wrote in a 1969 book about his Berkeley tenure. “It is our hope that in the integrated school we shall not raise another generation of bigots.”
- “They weren’t just requiring black children to go to school in white neighborhoods,” said Erica Frankenberg, an education and demography professor at Penn State University who researched the Berkeley programs. “They were also saying we need to be equitable in sharing the burden of going further away…. That was extremely rare.”
Cited in the LA Times story, CECR Director Erica Frankenberg co-authored a 2009 report on Berkeley, which looked at how Berkeley adjusted its integration plan in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Parents Involved case, which severely limited the acceptable methods for considering race in a voluntary integration plan. The report found, in part:
- “The 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision was portrayed as one dramatically limiting or ending voluntary integration. The Court acknowledged that there are compelling reasons to voluntarily pursue integration: to prevent racial isolation and to create diverse schools. Berkeley is an important example of how school districts can pursue this goal without relying on individual racial classifications. BUSD demonstrates that what may appear to be insurmountable legal barriers to integration—Proposition 209 and Parents Involved—can be overcome.”
As outlined in previous CECR research and summarized on this blog, many of the voluntary integration plans in place today rely on socio-economic measures and avoid consideration of race altogether. Berkeley’s plan is unique, though- it considers the overall racial composition of a neighborhood as opposed to the racial background of each individual student. Because it looks at race at the neighborhood level, it’s within the very narrow confines set by Parents Involved. This is rare and should be talked about more- it could be a useful guide for other districts.
Local control often leads to discrimination. And, Biden’s history on school integration both troubling and confusing.
Berkeley is also unique in that it is an outlier- instead, local control often leads to increased segregation. As pointed out by Nikole Hannah-Jones on twitter, it was indeed remarkable that someone running for the Democratic nomination used a local control argument against federal engagement in school integration. This part of the exchange touched off a number of articles that detailed Biden’s history on “busing” and school segregation. Observations like this were common in the news coverage:
- “After the debate on Thursday, Harris, too, said she was “surprised” by Biden’s answer. “We have so many examples in history where states have limited or restricted people’s civil rights. … We have certain values that are national standards, and we’re not going to let states compromise that,” she said.”
There’s an important contradiction in Biden’s argument, however – although he appears to be saying that integration should be a local decision, he’s repeatedly voted for measures that would tie the hands of local leaders.
At Vox.com, PR Lockhart has maybe the most comprehensive breakdown of Biden’s record on school integration. It includes key moments in his long Senate career:
- In 1975, the segregationist Senator Jesse Helms proposed a “measure would effectively end any federal oversight or enforcement of busing.” When that was defeated, Biden introduced a very similar measure.
- In 1976, Biden sought to block the Justice Department “from seeking busing as a desegregation tool.”
- In 1977, he co-sponsored an amendment that “limited federal funding of busing efforts” and he introduced a bill that aimed to limit court-ordered busing.
- In 1982, he voted for an appropriations amendment described as the “toughest anti-busing rider ever approved by either chamber of Congress.”
Emily Hodge pointed to this contradiction on twitter. In the thread here, she cites a study where she interviewed district folks who said they asked the federal DOE if “funds could be used for student transportation because it was one of their most urgent costs,” but program officers “replied regretfully that they could not because of the 1974 amendments prohibiting the use of funds for busing.” Those amendments were in place until last year (!) when several were removed after a NCSD-led advocacy campaign. One anti-busing provision remains on the books, and it is targeted in the NCSD policy proposals in the link above.
The debate about school diversity and integration extends beyond the Harris/Biden exchange.
On their websites and on twitter, many of the Democratic primary candidates have made statements (if vague) about school diversity. This recent paper from the Poverty and Race Research Action Council briefly summarizes statements and official policies of all the candidates. It focuses on school diversity, but includes their comments on other education policies issues.
And, after the debate, Chalkbeat contacted all the candidates for their positions on school integration. This article organizes response by each candidates place in the polls. It notes in part:
- “Colorado Senator Michael Bennet told us that he believes busing for desegregation can be helpful, but isn’t sufficient. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s campaign said “we should consider every tool at our disposal” to desegregate schools. And a spokesperson for former Representative Beto O’Rourke said that he “absolutely believes that the federal government has a responsibility and a role to play” in desegregation efforts.”
The next debates are scheduled for July 30th and 31st, and it’ll be fascinating to see whether this conversation will continue then. I’m still a bit shocked that it came up at all. Nonetheless, given the pace of resegregation and its effects on students (children!), it should be shocking when candidates for any political office talk about education without talking about contemporary school segregation. I’ll track updates.