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As Democrats Debate Busing and Segregation, Six Things You Need to Know

By Evie Blad & Andrew Ujifusa — June 28, 2019 7 min read
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School segregation was thrust to the center of the 2020 campaign scrum on Thursday night, when Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., sharply criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for his record of opposing busing black children as a means to integrate schools, an allegation Biden denied.

Harris, who said she was hurt by Biden’s position since she participated in a busing program as a child in Berkeley, Calif., reopened an ongoing and intense debate about school diversity. It’s an issue with a complicated history that reaches far beyond school walls and raises questions about things like housing policy. Even the term “busing” isn’t a neutral word in many cases.

So what should you keep in mind? We highlighted six elements of this issue, such as Berkeley’s desegregation plan, what polling says about attitudes toward busing, and how the courts have handled desegregation efforts. Check them out below.

1. The Berkeley Plan Was Voluntary

As it happens, the school district for Berkeley, Calif., where Harris went to school, has a history of its desegregation efforts on its website.

The Berkeley school board voted to approve an initial desegregation effort in 1964, the year Harris was born. That plan was a junior high school desegregation measure that came after years of study and advocacy involving the NAACP and others. Four years later, the district decided to desegregate all 14 of its elementary schools. A subsequent Berkeley school diversity plan survived a court challenge.

The desegregation efforts in Berkeley were undertaken voluntarily by local school officials and not through a court order. But controversy accompanied the effort, and at one point there was a recall election designed to remove school board members who supported desegregation.

2. Voluntary School Integration Has Changed Since Harris Was a Child

Today, it’s more difficult for schools to adopt race-based integration plans—where students’ school assignments are set to help balance the racial makeup between schools—without a court order in a desegregation case.

In its 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court sharply curtailed the permissible uses of race by school districts in assigning students to schools. In a 5-4 ruling, the court found that assignment plans in the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., districts that classified all students by race violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

“For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as Seattle, or that have removed the vestiges of past discrimination, such as Jefferson County, the way to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis is to stop assigning students on a racial basis,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said.

In the wake of that decision, some districts have looked to other factors that are viewed as less constitutionally problematic, like family income levels, to help achieve diversity in their schools.

3. Public Support for School Integration Is Mixed

In a 2017 poll issued by PDK International, about three-quarters of parents said it was “somewhat” or “very important” to have racially diverse public schools. But black parents were far more likely than white and Hispanic parents to say they would accept a longer commute for a racially diverse school. And even then, only 40 percent of black parents agreed the longer journey to school was worth it.

In 1972, the year Biden was elected to the Senate, Gallup asked respondents if they favored “compulsory busing of some children both black and white so that school desegregation can be achieved.” Twenty percent of respondents said yes, 70 percent said no, and 9 percent had no opinion.

In 1973, PDK asked respondents about their views of school integration in general, noting that it was a broader concept than busing, which is a specific desegregation strategy. In that poll, 30 percent of voters said more should be done “to integrate schools throughout the nation,” 38 percent said less should be done, and 23 percent said nothing should change.

4. Concerns About Biden’s Busing Record Go Beyond Busing

Busing isn’t as much of an active issue today as it was when Biden was first elected in the 1970s, but the concerns about his positions on the issue may touch on bigger issues.

“I think Joe Biden is going to have to talk a lot about his record during this election, and I think it’s only right that he talk about everything from his support of the 1994 crime bill ... all the way to his stance on busing,” New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, who is also running for president, told CNN. “There are real wounds out there. There are real racial issues we’ve got to deal with. The next nominee, whoever they are, is going to have to talk about this in an open and honest and even vulnerable way. And if they make mistakes ... They can’t fall into a defensive crouch and shift blame.”

Some voters may see Biden’s anti-busing history as responding to practical concerns many voters had about the difficult realities of school integration. Others may see it as a missed chance to exercise moral courage at a time when it really mattered, desegregation historians told Education Week this week.

5. School Diversity Legislation in Congress

There is legislation in Congress to promote school diversity initiatives, including busing. It’s the Strength in Diversity Act, introduced this year by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. It would provide grants to districts that want to address racial and socioeconomic diversity, including those who want to use a transportation plan to do so.

The bill has three cosponsors. Harris is not one of them. However, her office said Friday that Harris supports the bill. Two of the cosponsors are Democratic presidential candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The third is Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

It’s worth noting that Democrats in Congress have made this bill a priority, to the point where the House education committee approved the Strength in Diversity Act in a vote earlier this year. And this year’s bill is not the first time Murphy has introduced the proposal.

6. Candidates Aren’t Silent on Desegregation

Biden’s record on busing is controversial. But he does promote school diversity in the K-12 platform he unveiled last month, as does Sanders.

As part of his platform, Biden says he would reinstitute Obama administration guidance that encouraged schools to consider voluntary integration efforts. (The Trump administration revoked this guidance last year.) He also supports grants to help schools diversify. And Sanders also supports desegregation efforts, including those mandated by court orders, in his education agenda. He also says he would build on the Strength in Diversity Act.

Julián Castro, the former House and Urban Development secretary who is also running for president, addresses the issue in a somewhat different way in his education platform. “Although we ended sanctioned segregation in our schools many years ago, widespread disparities between students continue today,” Castro’s plan states. “We can’t have integrated schools if our housing and communities are segregated.”

One More Important Thing

In 1975, Biden said in an interview that busing is an “an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me.” But in the years since he made that statement, the benefits of school integration for black students—of which busing students among schools was just one option in the toolbox—has been shown in several research papers.

One example: Rucker Johnson, a professor at public policy at Berkeley and the author of “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works” has found that school integration improved the academic and life outcomes for black students in a number of measures, while not affecting white students in these measures. Johnson hypothesizes that increased per-pupil spending and reductions in class size helped drive the differences.

Another study, this time of students in Texas and led by Stanford Professor Eric Hanushek, found that black students attending racially segregated schools did not achieve at the rate of black students in more mixed schools. Having more black classmates had an insignificant effect on white students, this study found.

Photo: Black students of South Boston High School climb into the buses drawn right up to the school doors, that will take them home after classes on May 30, 1975. The city was under a court-ordered school integration program requiring the busing of 18 percent of public school students. (AP Photo/J. Walter Green)

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