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Word on the Beat: Busing

What reporters need to know about school desegregation efforts — past and present

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School segregation is a hot-button issue on the education beat. One strategy to address it, busing, has drawn widespread attention since a recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates.

In the latest installment of Word on the Beat, we explore what reporters need to know about campus reassignments to diversify schools — whether voluntary or mandatory – and how those efforts might impact students and communities.

What it means: In its broadest sense, busing has become shorthand for court-ordered desegregation — even those plans that might not require students to take a school bus to reach their new school. Busing can be federally mandated, as was the case in cities like Boston and Detroit, or voluntary. While the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, many of the nation’s public schools remained largely segregated due to housing patterns and economic inequality.

In the 1971 decision Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the high court ruled that federal courts could mandate desegregation through busing. Forced busing was implemented in many large cities. Black students who were part of court-ordered desegregation plans in places like Boston and Detroit were often met with harassment and even violence as they made their way to their new schools. In some communities, busing policies triggered “white flight,” which reduced the effectiveness of desegregation plans. Subsequent Supreme Court rulings further limited the use of busing as a desegregation tool.

Why it matters: The largely segregated state of the nation’s public schools today is a hot-button issue on the education beat. Understanding how past efforts at integration have either succeeded or failed is essential to effectively reporting on the current debate. In an interview with Chalkbeat, Matthew Delmont, the author of the book, “Why Busing Failed,” said the term has become a “political code word” that only emphasizes the negative aspects, such as the inconvenience to families of having their children attend school outside of the immediate neighborhood. (For more on the wording hazards when it comes to perceptions of school desegregation, check out a recent column by Emily Badger for The Upshot, published by The New York Times.)

“The reality on the ground was a lot of busing programs succeeded, or rather that school desegregation plans that used busing succeeded,” Delmont told Chalkbeat, citing research showing students who were bused reportedly had mostly positive experiences and more educational opportunities, such as smaller class sizes, more qualified teachers, and more chances to take advanced college preparation courses.

Who’s talking about it: Busing took the spotlight during a Democratic candidates’ debate earlier this month, when U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California confronted former Vice President Joe Biden about his past statements arguing that busing decisions should be local rather than federal mandates. Harris said she was part of the second class of Berkeley, California students to be bused to predominantly white schools and benefited from the opportunity. (EWA Awards finalist Natalie Orenstein explored the unfinished legacy of the then-unprecedented busing program in reporting for Berkeleyside.)

Since the debate standoff, Harris has softened her position somewhat, calling busing just one tool of school integration efforts that requires community buy-in to succeed. That puts her closer in line philosophically with Biden. As reporter Laura Meckler explained in a recent story for The Washington Post, busing can be an effective — albeit unpopular — means of diversifying schools.

Recent polling indicates that parents and voters tend to be more supportive of racially diverse schools in theory than in practice, especially if it means a longer commute for their children. (Reminder: Polls are snapshots in time, not definitive statements.) In a 2017 Phi Delta Kappan poll, 70 percent of parents expressed a preference for their children to attend a racially diverse school. Black parents were the most likely to say that “having a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds is extremely or very important” — 72 percent — compared with 57 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of whites. But a steep dropoff in support occurred across all groups if it meant a longer school commute.

Want to know more? Writing for Slate, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, contends that past myths about busing are actually helping modern-day school segregation thrive.  Writing for Chalkbeat, reporter Matt Barnum compiled a helpful roundup of the research on desegregation efforts, including those that required actual busing. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA also has collected research looking at the impact and benefits of diverse public schools. Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley, has argued that three things — money, preschool, and desegregation — are essential to giving poor children a chance to escape poverty. He looked at 40 years of data, the largest longitudinal study of its kind, and concluded that multiple generations of African American children were helped by school desegregation efforts. The longer black children attended integrated, well-funded schools, the better the outcomes in income and health as they moved into adulthood. For the most part, there was no negative impact on white students to attending more diverse schools and in some cases there were tangible academic and social benefits, according to Johnson’s literature review.

But researchers Paul Hill and Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington urge caution in linking busing to the benefits of diverse schools. “In general, black and white children benefit from being in diverse schools. But those results come mainly from schools that are integrated due to neighborhood composition and family choice, and they might not apply to situations in which desegregation is imposed by school assignment,” they write.

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