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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Goodbye to Busing

After a week or so of talking about the caucuses and candidates and other matters of national politics, here's something local.

Two weeks ago, the Wichita school board voted unanimously to end busing in the Wichita school district, USD 259. It was not a particularly extensive busing enterprise; at the present time, barely over 2000 students were affected by the local busing arrangement (out of a total elementary and secondary student population in the district of nearly 50,000). Nor was it comprehensive, focusing entirely upon those mostly African-American students who live within an "assigned attendance area" (and a few on the periphery of it) in north-central and northeast Wichita, and drawing in only those white students selected by lottery. It was very much a "voluntary" program, both in the sense that it was begun in response to various national and state pressures back in 1971, but without any specific direction or mandates from federal courts, and in the sense that those who participated in it did so because they were either randomly chosen or because they volunteered to participate (and those that were picked by lottery often--not always, but often--were able to find way out by getting their student into one of Wichita's numerous magnet schools, if they thought it was worth the effort, which many did). All this might make it seem like this isn't a big deal; but it is a big deal, at least for those of us who live here and are believers in the public schooling ideal, however many complaints we may have with it.

The negotiations over the end of busing in Wichita began months ago, in fact going all the way back to the Supreme Court's decision in regards to a couple of cases about school integration arrangements, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County, back in December of 2006. Those cases, both involving voluntary arrangements (in Seattle, WA, purely so; in the Louisville, KY, case, there had a been a court-ordered busing plan installed in years past, but it had expired, and the school board kept it going after tweaking it a bit) which were being implemented and supervised by local school boards, and which had been upheld by federal courts of appeal, were decided, by a 5-4 vote, to involve a level of race-based thinking that was unconstitutional. Since each of those programs were unique, there was no guarantee that the particular system that Wichita had come up with would have been found under that decision to be unconstitutional as well--but the local board didn't want to take any chances. Superintendent Winston Brooks began considering options for ending busing in Wichita almost immediately, and now, after more than a year of discussion and public meetings, the decision has been made: 37 years of race-based busing and integration plans comes to an end next August.

Like most things having to do with education and race in this country these days, this is most fundamentally an argument about power: who has it, where it resides, how you can use it. I say "these days" because I don't want to deny the battles of the 1950s and 60s really were about racial discrimination, plain and simple; certainly no one from Kansas, home of the state that brought America Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ought to deny that! But even by the late 1960s, it was becoming pretty clear that figuring out where one stood in the struggle for race-neutral education (not the struggle over racism in general, but this one particular slice of it) depended upon working out where one stood on the issue of national, state, and/or local control--in other words, on the issue of who ruled the schools in general, or if power over the schools was to be divided, how that division was going to be made. For most of the past forty years, the progressive answer has always been to eclipse local authority, and federalize at least some parts of the school system, thereby introducing standards and expectations which made the local reinforcement of biases in education difficult if not impossible to maintain. (Despite all the fine talk coming from the Supreme Court and civil rights leaders, school desegregation didn't really begin to happen until the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, wherein federal dollars were directed solely to desegregated schools, and financially strapped school districts in the south found the lure of federal money irresistible.) Of course, there's been a lot of abuse in the name of federal standards and guidelines (insert your own No Child Left Behind horror stories here). But basically, and practically speaking, I'm still a believer in the need for school districts to be governed in such a way as to match the egalitarian and, frankly, far from purely local aspirations and intentions that American citizens (including both students and their parents) have for them. This is one of the reasons I kind of liked Mike Huckabee in Arkansas; faced with a hard dilemma, he pushed forward a plan to reduce the number school districts and thus expand the size and reach of (and, yes, therefore the level of state involvement in) those that remained. I know--it's not necessarily populist or communitarian...but then again, any sovereign people, however grounded locally, will still unavoidably remain in tension with those larger ideals and communities they are also simultaneously a part of, and it can't simply be that "local control" is always the answer to every expression of a people's wants or needs or identity. (Even serious decentralists today seem at peace with defense being a national project.) Sometimes, when faced with some goals, the locality can be an unlovely place. Certainly that was the case when it came to the regional and national scandal of racial discrimination in the schools.

However (there's always a "however"), that tension works both ways. The desire to use higher authorities to attack racist or otherwise undemocratic and unequal habits and practices in local school districts was one thing; to use similar powers to physically disrupt schooling--that is, to remove students from one neighborhood and bus them to another--as a way of challenging the racial gerrymandering and socializing which characterizes many urban areas (including Wichita) is something else entirely. There are many overlapping ties we all have as we put together our families and neighborhoods, and distinguishing between them can sometimes lead to contradictions; nevertheless, compromising my local involvement in, say, the budget or curricula or educational philosophy of my daughters' elementary school is a very different thing from severing the local connection I and they have to that building entirely. I have no idea what I would have thought about busing if I'd lived in a large and racially divided metropolitan area in the late 60s and early 70s, when the lessons and victories of the civil rights movement were new and still sinking in, but looking back upon it today--not just the original efforts here and elsewhere, but the whole 30-plus-year experiment--I find the resistance which busing met with understandable and sympathetic. (I can't see how anyone can think otherwise after J. Anthony Lukas's brilliant Common Ground revealed the defeats, recriminations, false compromises and small, costly, barely-won victories of busing in Boston more than twenty years ago.) Granted, as Scott Lemieux pointed out in a fine post a couple of years back, busing was hampered from the get-go by two Supreme Court decisions--San Antonio v. Rodriguez and Milken v. Bradley--that together guaranteed that 1) the funding of American public schools would continue to operate on terms that necessarily forced localities into conflict with one another over property values (and thus over other socio-economic substitutes for race) and 2) that the suburbs, though dependent upon their surrounding locality, would be able to opt out of any state or federal solution. Still, busing is hard thing to ask of families and the neighborhoods that, ideally, they make their own through innumerable habits, many of which will revolve around school sports or activities or attendance. It forces parents and students to accommodate themselves to the road, and allows for--even encourages--adjustments that simply aren't good for family or community life. (Schools cutback on or outsource the parent-teacher conferences, because so few parents can make the trip across town; some caregivers get used to working longer hours, confident that the students they're responsible for will end up on the bus an additional two or more hours every day; television comes to play a greater role as the possibility of extracurricular involvement becomes harder to maintain because of distance; and as for walking to school, well, you can just forget about that.) No, I'm a fan of the public school ideal, but that ideal has to involve a presumption of parents and caregivers and communities being able to collaborate in creating a good childhood environment for those being educated...and sundering the ties between the local environment and the place of local schooling entirely may be just to great a burden for that ideal to endure.

I'm not the only one who felt that way: as I said, the vote of the Wichita school board to ending busing was unanimous, including African-American and Hispanic representatives from neighborhoods which the busing plan was originally built around. As part of the decision to end the overall busing system, there was a determination to continue busing as an option for those students in the assigned attendance area who still want it (and of course, many do; they've been through elementary and middle school with one set of students, so why not stay with their friends?), to finally--finally!--get serious with planning a new high school to serve north-central and northeast Wichita, to loosen restrictions on some of the magnet schools in the area, thus allowing those in the targeted area more options for attending schools closer to where they actually live (which, really, should be the primary point), and to set up some sort of committee with the power to review and assess the quality and diversity level of schools in the area in question...though how that'll play out, as you might expect, is still being argued over. It's no panacea; so long as our country's basic funding scheme for public schools remains so unjust, the resulting scraps that those who believe in truly equal educational opportunity for all have left to fight over are bound to be unsatisfying and incomplete. Still, all in all, I think the school board took a step in the right direction. Their hand may have been forced by a lousy decision from on high, but their decision fits the changing realities of Wichita far better than any simple busing plan ever could.


John B. said...

The desegregation system in Mobile, AL, where my daughters live (they, too are in the public school system, and for the same reasons you offer), is somewhat similar to Wichita's: for the elementary and middle-schoolers, students have the option of attending a neighborhood school or entering a lottery for the magnet schools; the magnet schools' populations are selected from those applicants based on a combination of race and gender proportions, and on a set percentage of spaces reserved for kids in what would ordinarily be that school's district. Continued enrollment in the magnet schools is tied to academic performance. Competition to get into the magnet schools is fierce--if not selected, parents will reapply for, in some cases, several years before either getting in or giving up, the schools are the best in the district, public or private or parochial, and are among the very best in the state. The high schools, meanwhile, are technically "neighborhood" schools, but the district map I saw once revealed that somebody on the school board has a rather gerrymandered sense of what a "neighborhood" looks like. So, yeah: there's de facto busing in Mobile.

When the Seattle and Louisville decisions came down, I too wondered how those decisions would affect Mobile's system. While I still lived there in the late '90s, the board petitioned and was granted permission to no longer be obligated by the courts to be mandated to desegregate its schools. But its current system, so far as I can tell, is so popular that the board continues it. And, truth be told, the student population in the public schools, due to white flight into the well-established parochial school system and the Protestant-church schools that, not entirely coincidentally, started appearing just about the time desegregation orders began to be issued for Southern districts, is essentially homogeneous: around 70% African-American.

Like you, I have profoundly mixed feelings about the means by which districts desegregate their schools but certainly do approve of the end, even as I rather nostalgically long for the "neighborhood school" system of my youth; likewise, my girls' mother and I approve of public schools, and my daughters (both in the magnet school program since kindergarten and currently in 7th and 5th grade) have been very well-served by this system--and not just academically. I can't say this is true of all their peers, but my daughters' respective sets of friends are likewise desegregated--but also, given the emphasis on academics in the magnet schools, their friends and their friends' parents also (fortunately) happen to be decent people, period. Given that puberty looms on the horizon, Whew!, you know? Times being what they are for parents of children (girls in particular), friends' skin color becomes less relevant--which, of course, is as it should be anyway.

Sorry for the long-windedness here. I just wanted to acknowledge that the institution of the Public School raises all sorts of questions about our vision of ourselves as a nation and society and so always will be a source of tensions between/among competing interests. So far as I can tell, though, in Mobile, at least--a city still very segregated socially--the schools have not been nearly the flashpoint that they have been in other cities, north and south, and students--and, I'd hope, on down the road a generation or two, the community--have been the direct beneficiaries of that calmness.

Russell Arben Fox said...

John, thanks for that thoughtful, thorough comment. The schools systems of American are so variable, and so overladen (and also often overburdened) with concerns and agendas both local and national and in between, that anything general about them is general. I appreciate the insight into Mobile's particular system very much.

The student population in the public schools, due to white flight into the well-established parochial school system and the Protestant-church schools that, not entirely coincidentally, started appearing just about the time desegregation orders began to be issued for Southern districts, is essentially homogeneous: around 70% African-American.

This is pretty much exactly what we observed, at least for elementary schools, when we lived in Starkville, MS, back in 2001-2002. The city was perhaps 1/3 African-American; yet when we enrolled Megan in kindergarten, we found out that a 90%-10% black-white ratio held for all their classes. It seems there were, throughout the county, numerous "Christian" academies that had been set up in the 60s and 70s, and these had been, for years, used as a refuge by white families used to get their kids out of the public school system. I doubt there was much if any actual racism left in their admission policies; lawsuits would have long since taken care of that. But the pattern had by then been locked in: alumni connections, grade expectations, and general social exclusiveness kept these Protestant schools overwhelmingly white, while the public schools in town oriented themselves to the needs of the black "majority."

I can't say this is true of all their peers, but my daughters' respective sets of friends are likewise desegregated--but also, given the emphasis on academics in the magnet schools, their friends and their friends' parents also (fortunately) happen to be decent people, period. Given that puberty looms on the horizon, Whew!, you know? Times being what they are for parents of children (girls in particular), friends' skin color becomes less relevant--which, of course, is as it should be anyway.

Yes, we've been thinking about this as Megan now heads into middle school, and the others come right along. I'm worried, slightly; by moving to the west side of Wichita, and finding a neighborhood where the elementary school, the middle school, and the high school are all in walking/bike riding distance, we seem to have unknowingly gotten ourselves in fairly homogeneous situation here. Not that it's like we live in Goddard or Maize or some other suburban paradise further west, but still, this is the whitest school district I think our kids have ever been in. I'm mostly happy that they're making the friends they are: friends that will, for the most part I think, be a help rather than a hindrance to us as we teach them what choices to make; everything else is less important right now. But still, it may be, especially as the end of busing here reverberates out and touches many other elements of Wichita life, that I'll find myself worrying about this issue more and more.