Last time we left off in the middle of my personal busing story in Louisville, Kentucky. The mandates of Brown v. Board of Education were finally being enforced 20 years after the fact. The powers-that-be were hard at work trying to solve the problem of getting a bunch of black kids into schools miles from home to study with white kids in, admittedly, far better funded schools.
Community schools have always been seen much like local politicians. Most criticize the education system in the U.S. and most disapprove of Congress (17% approval), but all those same people show pride in their local school and reelect their Representative over and over. Ergo, no one, black or white, liked the idea of busing kids in Louisville in 1975.
When students are bused as much as an hour away to a distant school, participating in extracurricular activities is a problem. Sports, music groups, and clubs meet and practice before or after school and the buses don’t accommodate that schedule. It was hard enough to figure out how to get all those kids to school for regular class time. One “genius” political idea (no educator would ever endorse this) was to assign teachers to areas too.
I (the teacher) would show up at my former school’s bus stop and board with my kids. I would then proceed to teach first and last period on the bus in transit. The kids would join their new classmates for second period and leave before the last class of the day. Try to imagine one or two teachers trying to conduct a class on a moving bus to a variety of kids––every day! Try to imagine the futility of black kids attending for two-thirds of the school-day being enculturated into the school’s ethos. This was dubbed “Jet” and fortunately it was jettisoned as an idea. What came to fruition wasn’t much better. All the Independent District schools were closed (my school was sold to the city hospital as a nurse training facility) and every city kid was bused into the suburbs.
My kids didn’t like going and the county kids didn’t like them coming into their realm. I have to qualify that because there are numerous instances of grand acceptance and friendships formed that are heartwarming––just not enough to outweigh the problems.
Busing was a topic of frequent discussion in our classes during spring semester as we attempted to get our kids prepared for the fall 1975 onset. One discussion prompted one of my students to create this heartfelt and magnificent quatrain of protest: “You won’t never,/Catch none of us,/Riding to school,/On a yellow bus.” The triple negative is pure gold.
Unfortunately, the bravado of a fifth-grader gave way to reality and they were caught riding on a bus that fall. I wish I could recall the student’s name to give him full credit.
Busing still exists in Louisville, but modifications like preferring choice in schools is accounted first before allocating other kids to be bused to schools. It is fair to say that 45 years later, school integration has not been perfected.
Here’s the part of this saga when white, Northern liberals have to face their hypocrisy. It has been 65 years since Brown v. Board of Education was decided and liberal leaders have challenged for integration in Southern schools, but haven’t pushed on Northern de facto segregation that is still strong across the country. The desegregation arguments are rife with “community schools” and “local control” statements that are simply dog-whistle terms for keeping schools segregated. As long as the wealth distribution disparities we have in the U.S. today exist, the attendance areas that have enough wealth to demand good schools are the only ones that will get them. Any solutions that will fulfill the moral demands that Brown implies but does not mandate nationwide, require huge transformations that white, liberal politicians consider third-rail poison because those changes will affect the white electorate who put them into office. White liberals maintain a commitment to civil rights, but campaign on “I agree with school integration, but I don’t like ‘busing.’” That speech only perpetuates segregated schools in Northern states.
Agreed, the solutions are complicated. Both Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have tracked forward and tracked back in the last months about their stances on “busing,” which still means “school integration” and has nothing to do with transportation. It is easy to defend wanting your kid to go to a local school: no time-consuming commute, school pride, ability to play sports and join clubs, friends all around, and a chance for parents to participate. All are sound arguments, but demanding a local school for your kids does nothing for the larger, moral issue of still rampant segregation.
According to SCOTUS in the Swann decision, busing was to be a “remedial technique.” Busing may be salve for the moral soul, but really isn’t a good educational option. There have been some modest attempts at desegregating schools without changing housing patterns. Denver, Colorado was an example of highly de facto segregated schools not under the purview of Brown. A conscious effort in the last dozen years helped, but did not completely integrate.
Much of the work was done by then Denver Public Schools Superintendent, now Senator and presidential candidate Michael Bennet. Some liberals didn’t like his solutions, but we could do a lot worse than nominating him to run for President––that’s for another column. School choice and a spate of public charter schools helped the situation in Denver. But, it is still the moneyed middle and upper class that can manage to get kids to schools around the district. Until public transportation can scatter kids across the landscape to choice schools, poor, underfunded, transient schools will still exist. We can’t close them all.
There have been talks about paradigm shifts like putting affordable housing in the middle of more affluent neighborhoods––often requiring zoning changes. Can’t you see the lawn signs already? “Not in my backyard!” And, when poor neighborhoods begin to gentrify, costs skyrocket and the poor can no longer afford to live on their former blocks.
Equally funding all schools without regard to zip code or tax bases in poor neighborhoods could also help with quality education for all, but in the end, is a concession to separate-but-equal. Another solution could be to put elementary and secondary schools on campuses like universities and have all students attend the same consolidated learning facilities. Small, one high school towns do not have segregated secondary schools unless there is no diversity in town.
Changes to improve everyone’s access to a quality education would require reshaping the way we think about city planning and force us to put-up or shut-up about our commitment to civil rights.
De jure segregation and de facto segregation are, bottom line, both simply segregation and un-American. Having done so very little to fix substandard education since being put on official notice in 1954 is our fault.
Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.