If children of all races went to the same schools with each other, it would be harder to treat them unequally.
Moreover, it would be harder for them to grow up prejudiced because they would have learned what it’s like to have classmates who are different from them.
And though most people agree with these premises in principle, our laws still refuse to make them a reality in fact.
Perhaps that’s why it was so astounding when Kamala Harris brought up the issue of school segregation and busing at the first Democratic debates.
If you’re anything like me, for the first time these debates made Harris look like a viable contender for the party’s Presidential nomination to face Republican incumbent Donald Trump in 2020.
But then she immediately contradicted herself when people actually started to take her seriously.
During the debates, Harris called out front runner and former vice president Joe Biden for opposing court-ordered busing in the 1970s as a way of combating school segregation.
The California Democrat and former federal prosecutor rightly said that 40 years ago there was a “failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” so “that’s where the federal government must step in.”
But her star-making moment was when she made the whole matter extremely personal.
“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,” Harris said. “That little girl was me.”
The tactic was so successful that Biden has been fumbling to apologize and explain away a history of obstructing desegregation ever since.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the debate showed Biden had lost half of his support among black voters since earlier in June.
Meanwhile, the Harris campaign was quick to cash in on the political capital she earned by selling t-shirts with a picture of herself when she was in school with the emblem “That Little Girl Was Me.”
It could almost be a masterclass in how to make a political point to both boost your own campaign and change the narrative to improve national policy.
That is if Harris actually backed up her rhetoric with action.
Unfortunately, she has been tripping all over herself to keep this a criticism of Biden and not let it become a policy prescription for today.
While perfectly happy to support busing as a measure to stop segregation in the past, she seems much less comfortable using it to stop our current school segregation problems.
Because even though the landmark Supreme Court decision that found racial segregation to be unconstitutional – Brown v. Board of Education – is more than 60 years old, our nation’s schools are in many places even more segregated now than they were when this ruling was handed down.
So the question remains: in some areas should we bus kids from black neighborhoods to schools located in white ones and vice versa to ensure that our classrooms are integrated?
Since the debates, Harris has waffled saying busing should be “considered” by school districts but she would not support mandating it.
In subsequent comments, she said she’d support a federal mandate for busing in certain situations where other integration efforts have not been effective or when the courts have stepped in to provide the federal government that power. However, she does not believe that either of these conditions have been met.
Frankly, it sounds a whole lot more like someone desperately making things up as she goes along than someone with a true plan to fix a deep problem in our public education system.
She rightly attacked Biden on his record but then came up short trying to prove that she would be much different, herself, if elected.
However, that doesn’t mean all Democratic candidates are so unprepared. A handful have detailed integration policy proposals.
The most obvious is Bernie Sanders.
In fact, it is a cornerstone of his “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education.” Not only would he repeal the existing ban on using federal transportation funding to promote school integration, he would put aside $1 billion to support magnet schools to entice more diverse students. However, the most ambitious part of his desegregation effort goes beyond legislation. Sanders promises to “execute and enforce desegregation orders and appoint federal judges who will enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act in school systems.”
Sanders understands that the courts have largely sabotaged most desegregation efforts in the last 40 years.
At least two Supreme Court rulings have taken away the federal government’s power to enforce Brown v. Board. The first was 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley ruling which established that federal courts could not order desegregation busing across school district lines. They could only do so inside districts. So in big cities like Detroit – where the case originated – you have largely black city schools surrounded by mostly white suburban ones. The ruling forbids busing from city to suburban districts and vice-versa thereby destroying any kind of authentic desegregation efforts.
More recently, in 2007, the Supreme Court’s Parent’s Involved decision put even more constraints on voluntary busing programs.
Sanders is acknowledging these problems and promising to select judges to the bench who would work to overturn these wrongheaded decisions.
To my knowledge, no one has yet offered a more comprehensive plan.
However, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro comes in at a close second.
As you might expect, his school integration plan focuses on real estate and housing issues. According to his Website, Castro’s plan includes:
“Fulfill the promise of Brown v Board of Education through a progressive housing policy that includes affirmatively furthering fair housing, implementing zoning reform, and expanding affordable housing in high opportunity areas. These efforts will reduce racial segregation in classrooms.”
In other words, Castro hopes to work around the courts by incentivizing integration in neighborhoods which would also increase it in our schools.
It’s a good plan – though perhaps not enough in itself.
Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt Castro’s sincerity here. Unlike Sanders’ plan, Castro’s education policy statement is littered with jargon right out of the school privatization, edtech and high stakes testing playbook. These are, after all, the same people who have worked to increase segregation with the promotion of charter and voucher schools.
For instance, the second point of his plan is called “Reimagining High School” – a monicker stolen from the XQ Superschools program, a philanthrocapitalist scheme to rebrand school privatization funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.
This shouldn’t be surprising coming from Castro. In 2013, the mayor went on a tour of cities sponsored by Education Reform Now – an arm of Democrats for Education Reform, a school privatization lobbying network. In the same year, he was also a featured guest at a ribbon cutting ceremony for IDEA charter schools. In 2010, he admitted he had no problem taking money with strings attached – a reference to the Obama administration’s chief education initiative of offering education grants if states increased reliance on high stakes testing and charter schools. In particular, Castro said: “I would have taken the Race to the Top money if I was mayor, dogcatcher, or whatever.”
And speaking of standardized testing and edtech, there are other telling hints that he’s on the neoliberal bandwagon in his current education plan:
“Provide educators and public schools flexibility in defining success, including competency-based assessments and support for transitions away from seat-time requirements. Provide maximum flexibility for school leaders, teachers, and students to work together to develop rigorous, competency-based pathways to a diploma and industry recognized credentials,” [Emphasis mine].
These terms “competency-based” and “rigorous” have strong associations with the privatization industry. “Competency-based” education programs usually mean making kids do daily mini-standardized tests on iPads or other devices and other untested cyber education programs. “Rigorous” has been associated with topdown academic standards like the Common Core that provide students with few resources or even taking them away and then blaming kids for not being able to meet arbitrary and developmentally inappropriate benchmarks.
Castro has some good ideas, but his troubling associations and language give any person familiar with these issues reason to pause.
Of course, Castro has not yet made a real mark among those Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.
Perhaps more important is the relative silence of a more popular candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
She hasn’t spoken much about integration efforts on the campaign trail. Along with Sanders, she is a co-sponsor of the Strength in Diversity Act, the leading congressional vehicle for school integration. However, that legislation is deeply flawed because it not only increases grant money for desegregation but also gives a big chunk of change away to charter schools.
In the past, Warren has supported a kind of school voucher program to separate where a student is enrolled in school from where they live entirely, but you can add it to the list of education issues she has not seen the need to clarify as yet.
It’s no surprise that so few Democratic hopefuls want to address the issue of desegregation – especially doing so through busing.
White middle class and wealthy people generally don’t support it.
They simply don’t want their kids going to schools with large numbers of black and brown students.
And this is a real moral weakness in white culture.
I went to an integrated school from Kindergarten to high school. My daughter goes to the same district. I teach at another integrated school.
The benefits of attending such a school far outweigh any negatives.
If students have to spend more time getting to and from school via buses to reach this goal, it wouldn’t matter if we valued the outcome.
In fact, many white parents don’t mind putting their kids on buses or driving them to get away from minority children.
Certainly we should try to minimize the time it takes to get to and from school but that shouldn’t be the only consideration.
They say we get the leaders we deserve.
If white people really want to defeat Trump, they may have to start by defeating the bigot inside themselves first.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
8 thoughts on “Busing and School Segregation Used for Politics not Policy”
I was looking at a map of the Pittsburgh area school districts. I am assuming that the three part Keystone Oaks School District exists to segregate the white and black students in that area. Is that correct?
TE, there are 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, most of them in the urban Pittsburgh and Philadelphia centers. I’ve heard of Keystone Oaks but don’t know much about it specifically. Could it be a segregated district? Certainly.
It is just a few miles from you, so I thought you might know of it. You can see it here:https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_Oaks_School_District#/media/File%3AMap_of_Allegheny_County_Pennsylvania_School_Districts.png
Three separate islands, one nearly completely surrounded by the Pittsburgh School District. The free floating island seems very common there, as is peninsulas sticking deep in other school districts. I note that the Pittsburgh School District lies to the north, west, and south of your school district.
That is really weird. I never saw it before. As you can see, there are a lot of school districts in the Pittsburgh area. Not sure what is going on there.
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