School busing: an era in decline
After 30 years of court orders, some cities seek to trade goal ofintegration for one of better schools.
America's schools are resegregating.Skip to next paragraph
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Three decades after federal courts began ordering cities to mix their classrooms racially, the pendulum has begun to swing the other direction. A growing number of cities are dismantling their busing programs. Today, St. Louis votes on a sales-tax increase that, if approved, would bring it closer to ending 27 years of court jurisdiction over its schools.
But what next? Answers are murky.
Although backers and critics of desegregation disagree on almost everything, they share common ground on this: The racial mixing of schoolchildren has so far failed to alleviate America's long-standing challenges with race relations, urban poverty, and minority underachievement. Integration has been overwhelmed by stronger forces, such as family circumstances and the changing racial composition of inner cities.
Does this mean desegregation should be junked? Opponents say yes. By diverting the money spent on busing to improve education at neighborhood schools, everyone gains, they argue.
Supporters of desegregation counter that neighborhood schools didn't solve the problem before court-ordered busing and probably won't again.
In any case, the United States should get its answer soon. While cities from Austin, Texas, to Boston are moving back to neighborhood schools, St. Louis is trying to keep desegregation alive, busing minority students not only within the city but also out to the suburbs. Under the proposed settlement, which faces the crucial tax vote today, all but one of the area's school districts would continue accepting students for at least the next three years.
St. Louis is a key test case of whether voluntary desegregation can survive after pressure applied by the courts disappears. "Compared to other desegregation cases that are being dismantled, there's some effort in St. Louis to keep the program alive," says Amy Stuart Wells, education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied St. Louis's busing program.
Many cities are moving away from the goal of integration some 30 years after the US embarked on its huge social experiment. In the mid-1960s, for example, only about 12 percent of African-American students attended desegregated schools. By 1972, the figure had jumped to 44 percent.
But by the 1990s the pendulum had begun swinging back. According to the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, 20 states saw an increase in the percentage of African-American students attending segregated schools between 1989 and 1994, while only 13 experienced a decrease. (The rest either saw no change or had insufficient data.)
The changes were mostly small, but they represent a dramatic shift, researchers say.
"It's a very, very important kind of historic change," says Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project. Schools are "resegregating faster than at any time since the Brown decision," the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that ignited the desegregation movement.
The high court is also setting the new direction. In three decisions this decade, it has paved the way for school districts to get out from under judicial oversight in return for good-faith efforts to desegregate. Denver, Dallas, Buffalo, N.Y., and Savannah, Ga., got their desegregation orders lifted and have been joined by a growing slate of other cities, such as Indianapolis, Austin, and Nashville, Tenn. More are expected to do the same.