Asked about a debate exchange between Democratic presidential candidates on busing and school integration, President Donald Trump over the weekend seemed to suggest that he would be releasing a new plan on the issue soon. But he provided few details.
Trump’s responses at a Saturday press conference in Osaka, Japan, seemed to focus on busing as a general mode of transportation, rather than a means of desegregating schools. This led some commentators to question whether he fully understood the debate.
The topic has dominated headlines since California Sen. Kamala Harris pressed former Vice President Joe Biden at a Democratic presidential debate on his record of supporting some anti-busing measures in the 1970s, when Harris, who is black and Asian, was part of one of the first classes to integrate Berkeley schools, under a plan the district adopted voluntarily.
Some historians have stressed that “busing,” the term used by Harris and by reporters who questioned Trump, is problematic, often used by people who broadly opposed court-ordered desegregation, regardless of the method. The issue is still relevant today as students of color make up a majority of enrollment in U.S. public schools, and data suggests that many schools have essentially resegregated in the last few decades.
“And as far as that, I will tell you in about four weeks, because we’re coming out with certain policy that’s going to be very interesting and very surprising, I think, to a lot of people,” Trump said, when a reporter asked him where he stands on the issue of “federally mandated busing.”
A school integration plan from the Trump administration would indeed be surprising and unexpected. In 2018, Trump’s administration rescinded several guidance documents issued under President Barack Obama that emphasized permissible ways for schools and colleges to take race into account to promote student diversity. And Trump’s Education Department has taken heat from civil rights groups for rolling back other guidance documents aimed at promoting racial equity in school discipline.
In the 1970s, When Biden was first in the Senate, Republicans included opposition to busing in their national platforms. And in the time since, courts have restricted districts’ ability to take race into consideration when determining students’ school assignments.
It was unclear over Saturday whether Trump was alluding to a specific proposal that is in the works or making a promise off the cuff, which he has done with other policy issues in the past. A spokesperson for the Education Department referred Education Week to the White House for clarification. A White House spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment Saturday and Sunday.
Pressed a second time Saturday on whether he considers busing to be a “viable way of integrating schools,” Trump responded:
Well, it has been something that they've done for a long period of time. 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. But this has been certainly a thing that's been used over the—I think if Vice President Biden had answered the question somewhat differently, it would've been a lot—it would've been a different result. Because they really did hit him hard on that one. So—but it is certainly a primary method of getting people to schools."
Transporting children between school assignment boundaries has been just one of several methods of integrating schools. Some districts have also shifted assigment boundaries, constructed new schools that draw equally from multiple racially segregated neighborhoods, and created magnet programs to attract students to schools outside of their designated attendance boundaries.
Biden has said he only opposed busing when mandated by federal agencies. But Harris said those mandates were necessary to encourage integration in cities and schools that wouldn’t voluntarily undergo such efforts.
Read more about the debate over Biden and busing, and see related stories about school segregation at these links:
- As Democrats debate busing and segregation, six things you need to know
- A history of Joe Biden’s support of anti-busing measures
- There are wild swings in federal desegregation data, and the feds can’t explain it
Photo: President Donald Trump in 2017. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)