Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The History—and Future—of School Integration Defy Buzzwords

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the race for the Democratic nomination have given education policy a rare moment the limelight in a presidential campaign. The policy issue at the heart of their dispute, dubbed “busing,” has prompted a debate about equity and school integration that is difficult to handle fairly in a political environment that leaves time only for buzzwords and zingers. 

I was recently contacted by a reporter exploring the nuances of the subject, and I wanted to expand on those thoughts here to shed some light on the recent history of many large school districts and the ways our school system can better educate an increasingly diverse population.

Efforts that might be labeled “voluntary busing” continue in many places, whether to desegregate schools or simply to give kids access to magnets and schools of choice. So-called mandatory busing (requiring students to attend schools other than the ones which they would normally attend to reduce segregation) is now rare to nonexistent. Districts do, however, promote desegregation via rules that guarantee kids from many neighborhoods access to some schools of choice, and by ruling out transfers that would increase racial imbalance—often to comply with long-standing court orders

Berkeley, where Harris attended school, adopted a local busing plan, which clearly had some benefits. It was controversial, and the schools lost some students, but the local board was able to sustain the policy politically and financially. Other approaches, like Hartford’s combination of busing and interdistrict magnet schools, clearly benefited black students and did no harm to others. But there was a great deal more controversy, and a different balance of harms and benefits, elsewhere. 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.   

Mandatory busing fell out of favor in part because it didn’t create stable desegregation. White residents’ opting out by moving to the suburbs and sending children to private schools reduced district enrollments dramatically (in Seattle by more than 50 percent, in Dayton by more than 75 percent). Prejudice was a big motive for white flight, but so was parents’ belief that the newly desegregated schools were not prepared to manage the diversity of student needs and levels of preparation they then faced. Population declines, often related to job losses, also drove families out of some cities, especially in the industrial Midwest. From this distance in time, no one can say whether mandatory busing, done with more care and more gradually, might have worked better. 

Courts took off the pressure for busing in many localities by finding that district policies no longer favored segregation, even if schools still weren’t desegregated. 

Some localities have achieved some desegregation via massive investments in quality schools, but there is no sure method. Middle-class parents of all ethnicities will flee a school or district that they do not trust, or that think assigns their kids to schools just to achieve the “right” numbers. 

As many big cities re-gentrify, there will be a new opportunity to create schools that will attract and keep students regardless of race, ethnicity, or income. But it is not clear whether public school districts can create those schools, or will build them in partnership with charter schools. Otherwise, gentrification can lead to growth of private schools or a newly segregated public system—as has occurred in parts of New York City.

There are many policy tools besides busing that can lead to more high quality integrated school experiences for students. San Antonio ISD intentionally places promising new schools in certain neighborhoods, draws explicit attendance boundaries, and puts weights on the student enrollment process to ensure diverse schools. There are also large numbers of “diverse by design” charter schools that build integration into their missions. 

What goes on inside the schools is just as important as how students enroll. It can be challenging for schools to manage diverse academic, social-emotional, and cultural differences if they aren’t intentionally designed for it, and their teachers aren’t adequately prepared. It’s a critical endeavor as America’s population of public-school students becomes increasingly diverse, but it requires expertise and investment in teacher know-how, strong curricula, and structures that help educators meet every student’s needs. 

School systems can’t continue to tolerate poor outcomes and inequitable resources for students of color. But they also can’t just throw kids from different backgrounds together and hope it will work out.

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