When You Are Against Busing, What Are You For?

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Dear Congressman Nobus: I am writing to you--a legislator with a consistently progressive voting record--because of your position for school integration, but against busing. Now that the campaign to abolish busing for school desegregation appears to be close to its zenith, this is an appropriate time to remind you of the political dangers that will come with the success of this movement.

The hard-core segregationists will not be politically endangered; they oppose busing for the soundest of reasons--it works, and they oppose results. The dangers are to legislators like you--thoughtful conservatives, moderates, and liberals with decent records on matters of civil rights and social progress, and genuine visions of an open and fair nation. It is not merely a matter of having strange bedfellows; it is that you are imprisoning yourself with a social result that you will find incompatible with your own values.

You see, someday someone who knows that you're against busing will ask what you are for. If you are anti-war, you'd be for peace. If you are against unemployment, you'd be for job-creation. If you are anti-federal deficits, you might well be for strict spending controls. Peace, the creation of jobs, and spending limits can be explained--certain kinds of public policy flow from such goals. To be against busing, however, leaves you in favor only of neighborhood schools. And therein lies your political danger, because if all the buses that produce desegregated schools are taken off the road, you will have to be willing to accept--and defend--the following realities.

First, a very large number of black, white, and Hispanic students will forever go to one-race schools. Even with current desegregation plans, one-third of all black students, more than one-fourth of all Hispanic students, and nearly two-thirds of all white students go to one-race schools. Dismantle existing desegregation plans, and the number of one-race schools will mushroom. Only 19 years ago, as Gary Orfield, the University of Chicago political scientist, noted recently, 98 percent of black students in the South were in all-black schools and almost all whites attended all-white schools. That's where the killing of desegregation will take us. Simply and honestly stated, to be anti-busing is to be tolerant of permanent racial segregation in the schools. Once you help kill busing, you will have to explain why segregated schools are good for the country.

Second, the federal government, the official protector of civil rights, will be close to out-of-business on matters related to race and schools. Racial desegregation is the best-known equity objective the government has pursued in the schools, but it is far from the only one. The government also pursues equity on other school fronts--for females, the poor, the non-English-speaking, and the confidentiality of students' records.

More often than not, making schools more equitable--fairer--has been a federal idea, not a local initiative. Indeed, if the government tolerates segregated schools, deregulates education, and delegates power to the states through block grants for school programs, the federal presence in the schools will be reduced to little more than classroom flags and the Pledge of Allegiance.

So your assistance in resegregating the schools also will contribute to reducing the federal role in promoting equity in the schools, a role that relatively few states and local school boards have ever played with distinction. If no level of government effectively fosters equity, there will be less of it--and you'll have to explain why less fairness in the schools is progress.

Third, voluntary school integration is a noble idea--but a ludicrously unrealistic substitute for desegregation by enforcement of law. It is perfectly obvious--even to those who oppose busing--that schools have been desegregated since 1954 by federal action, not by local volunteerism. Of the 1,800 school districts now desegregated, only a handful did so voluntarily--and few of them are very large.

As a politician, you can easily sense how much desegregation is left to voluntary actions. Voluntary programs, the desegregation method touted by the Reagan Administration, have made a pitifully small contribution to desegregation--for example, 1,200 students in St. Louis and 14 suburbs; 700 students in Houston and 30 of its suburbs; and 1,165 students (as of three years ago) in Rochester, N.Y.--compared to the vast majority of students still racially isolated. Prayer might be as powerful in integrating the schools.

Milwaukee, Buffalo, Cleveland, Denver, Boston, and other cities would also each claim a quantity of voluntary desegregation achieved through magnet schools and special programs. But these voluntary programs were energized and propelled by desegregation orders from U.S. courts, not by local initiatives for integration.

So when busing is replaced by voluntary goodwill, you had better be prepared to explain how a little integration is as much as a lot, and why school districts that have desegregated only when pressed by law will rush to integrate voluntarily when the legal pressure is removed.

Fourth, the desegregated big-city school systems, once relieved of busing, will continue to have nasty problems concerning money, educational productivity, morale, and management--and busing won't be there to blame. An important part of the anti-busing rhetoric is the blaming of busing for having caused everything from enrollment decline to financial bankruptcy to watered-down instruction. But take busing out of the Clevelands and Bostons and Detroits, and urban schools will still have more than their share of fiscal crises, dropouts, depressed reading scores, low attendance rates, and discipline problems. The causes are deeply rooted in practices, policies, structures, assumptions, and orthodoxies that often predate desegregation.

The fact is that many of the older, big-city school systems--Cleveland is a prime illustration--have been internally bleeding and dry-rotting for years, but out of public sight. The spotlight of desegregation exposed old systematic ills, and unintentionally gave the opponents of busing the attractive though false theme that busing wrought educational ruin in the cities. So when busing is dead and the school problems persist, you'll have to explain why they didn't disappear with the buses.

You see, Congressman, the school problem is bigger than buses, more intractable than the busing opponents allow, and desperately serious, especially in the cities. To help the schools and the children in them demands more than being against busing--you have to be for something.

Are you for permanently segregated schools, less attention to fairness in the practice of education, dependence on voluntary cures for the most unpopular school problems, and less pressure on the schools to find and attack the root causes of old school-system defects?

If so, join the kill-the-busing crowd, enjoy the short-term political benefits--and get ready to explain to yourself and others precisely how you've helped the schools and contributed to the health of the nation. The question will arise: You can count on it.

Sincerely, Leonard B. Stevens

Vol. 02, Issue 20, Page 24

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