A confrontation over busing between two Democratic presidential candidates in recent weeks has exposed just how little the public understands about the issue and how much the nation is still wrestling with competing narratives about the success of school desegregation efforts.
California Sen. Kamala Harris challenged former Vice President Joe Biden in the first round of primary debates, asking him if he regretted his support of bills in the 1970s that aimed to restrict the federal government’s ability to force and fund busing plans as a means of desegregating schools. Those positions were in the spotlight after Biden, speaking at a fundraiser a week and a half before the debates, recalled the “civility” of working with segregationist colleagues to accomplish his goals as a young senator.
For Harris, the issue was personal.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools,” she said, “and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously.”
Biden maintained that he favored busing when it was adopted voluntarily, as it was by schools in Berkeley, Calif., when Harris was a child, or when it was court-ordered to remedy legally enforced school segregation. But Harris insisted that federal mandates were sometimes necessary in other cases when states and districts wouldn’t take action on their own.
Biden later apologized for his remarks about segregationist senators. “Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it,” Biden said at a South Carolina event on July 6. But he defended his civil rights record, including the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and did not apologize for his school integration record.
“I’m going to let my record stand for itself and not be distorted or smeared,” Biden said.
Busing as a solution to the segregation of American schools has a long and complicated history. Here’s what you need to know.
Voluntary School Integration Has Changed Since the 1970s
Today, it’s more difficult for schools to adopt race-based integration plans—in which 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.
In the wake of that decision, some districts have looked to other factors viewed as less constitutionally problematic, like family-income levels, to help achieve diversity in their schools.
Public Support for School Integration Is Mixed
Historians say the term “busing” is problematic. Transportation is just one means of accomplishing school integration, but it became a toxic label some parents used to dismiss those efforts altogether, those experts said.
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. 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.
School Desegregation Helps Students
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 has been demonstrated in research.
One example: Rucker Johnson, a professor at public policy at the University of California, 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. 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 University professor Eric Hanushek, found that black students attending racially segregated schools had lower math and reading test scores than black students in more racially mixed schools. Having more black classmates had an insignificant effect on white students, this study found.
School Diversity Legislation in Congress
There is legislation in Congress to promote school diversity initiatives, including busing. The Strength in Diversity Act, introduced this year by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, 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.
Harris joined the bill as a co-sponsor after Education Week asked her office about the measure. After the debate, she said she favors voluntary integration efforts. Two of the other co-sponsors of the bill are fellow Democratic presidential candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Candidates Aren’t Silent on Desegregation
Biden included school diversity measures in the K-12 platform he unveiled in May, as did 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 that guidance last year.)
Biden also supports grants to help schools diversify.
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, a former Housing 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 says. “We can’t have integrated schools if our housing and communities are segregated.”
President Donald Trump, asked about the debate, vaguely referred to a plan he said he’d release “in about four weeks” and seemed to focus on busing as a general mode of transportation, rather than a means of desegregating schools.
That led some commentators to question whether he fully understood the issue.
“Well, it has been something that they’ve done for a long period of time,” Trump said. “I mean, you know, there aren’t that many ways you’re going to get people to schools. So this is something that’s been done. In some cases, it’s been done with a hammer instead of velvet glove. And, you know, that’s part of it.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as In Campaign Season, a New Look at Busing