In the first Democratic presidential debates, Sen. Kamala Harris of California defended forced busing back in the 1970s as a civil rights triumph and criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for racial insensitivity for once opposing the policy.
We all want great schools for children of all racial groups and all income levels. But those of us who lived through this era know the reality of forced busing was quite different from the depiction of a civil rights triumph Harris now says it was.
In the 1970s, this heavy-handed school integration policy – implemented across the country in cities from Boston to Milwaukee – was wildly unpopular with white and black parents. Fewer than 10 percent of parents of either race supported cramming 7- and 8-year-olds in crowded yellow buses and zigzagging them across cities and suburbs far away from their neighborhood schools.
You can Google busing maps in major cities in this era and you will see that the routes go here, there and everywhere as if they were designed by a drunken Soviet Politburo central planner.
The purpose was to ensure that black children in terrible neighborhoods could sit next to white kids in public schools. But it turned out the white inner-city schools black children were shipped off to weren’t too good either. And white parents were none too happy that the courts were busing their kids out of their neighborhoods as if they were laboratory rats in a social-science experiment.
At that time, the social engineers – judges, politicians and political activists – thought that the quality of the school, the level of community involvement and the excellence of the teachers were less important than the racial composition of the classrooms. When you really think about it, that’s a pretty racist position in and of itself.
Amazingly, and as is typical with liberal social planning, no one in government ever bothered to ask the families and communities affected what they thought about the policy.
But it soon became abundantly clear what people thought of the idea. This tumultuous era of forced busing caused widespread protests in the streets, a worsening of racial tensions and no improvement in student achievement or inner-city school performance. In my hometown of Chicago, race relations deteriorated, and the issue became a powder keg.
The goal, racial equality in education, was well-meaning, but the real-life policy outcomes were a setback for racial integration.
Today, some 40 years later, we know there is a better way to make schools colorblind – and improve student learning – without forcing kids to attend schools they don’t want to. That is to expand parental choice options that include public, private and parochial schools and let the education dollars follow the children. I have visited and seen firsthand school voucher programs in Washington, D.C., and other cities benefit thousands of mostly black and Hispanic children. It is a glorious sight to see happy kids of different races and income groups together in schools that perform.
Sadly, many of the same politicians who still defend mandatory desegregation through busing of children also vehemently oppose allowing kids to get on a bus and attend schools – public or parochial or private – that parents do want for their kids. Isn’t voluntary busing superior to forced busing?
Most liberals now oppose school vouchers, tax credit scholarship programs and even charter schools that allow the parents to have far more options in what schools their children attend. The political clout wielded by teachers unions has blocked school choice programs that would let minority parents have the choices that wealthier white parents do.
My former Wall Street Journal colleague Holman Jenkins reminds us in his latest column that during the height of the school busing experiment, rich white liberals pulled their kids out of the public schools entirely to avoid the turmoil that the politicians they voted for caused. Busing was for other parents’ kids.
Herein lies the hypocrisy. Liberal politicians keep promising to give voice to the poor, the disadvantaged, the people of color, but they won’t trust them to make decisions for themselves. They sing “power to the people” at their rallies, but they resist policies that would empower them. That is the real problem with our school system, and it is so easy to have superior and integrated classrooms if we would just give choice a chance.