Busing in America: Race relations, revisited

Why We Wrote This

As busing reenters the national conversation, we take a fresh look at a historical practice and explore how attitudes and strategies have changed – and how they haven’t. 

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Students gather at the end of the first day of forced busing in San Francisco on Sept. 14, 1971. Using busing for desegregation is no longer a common practice in the United States.

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This summer’s Democratic presidential debates brought back discussion about a contentious topic: busing. California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden have prominently sparred about their records and positions on the approach to integrating schools.

The busing era began in the decade after the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that separate schools for white and black children were not equal. When school districts stalled on implementing Brown, courts had to order some school districts to use busing to bring black students to primarily white schools and vice versa. 

From the standpoint of integration and academic achievement, busing was effective. It resulted in some of the highest levels of racial integration. Politically, busing policies failed. It was unpopular with the American public, and was resisted – sometimes violently – by white parents.

Using busing for desegregation is no longer common, even though support for school integration is high. More typical strategies include establishing magnet schools, adjusting attendance zone boundaries, offering a districtwide school choice policy, and taking race into account when considering student transfer requests.

School busing roared into the national conversation this summer after California Sen. Kamala Harris challenged former Vice President Joe Biden on his record at the Democratic presidential debates in June and July. Ms. Harris criticized Mr. Biden for working with segregationist senators in the 1970s to limit busing as a tool for desegregation. (Civil rights advocates have also criticized him.) She spoke positively of her experience integrating the public schools in Berkeley, California, through busing.

Mr. Biden says he wasn’t against busing at the local level, but was opposed to federal intervention, except when segregated schools were explicitly created by local government policy. Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden continue to clarify their positions on federally mandated busing.

What is the historical use of busing in the United States?  

School districts used buses to transport students to school throughout the 20th century, with little objection. The busing period that sparked considerable controversy ran from the late 1960s through the 1980s, when courts ordered school districts to bus students to and from schools based on race, in order to achieve desegregation. 

The busing era began in the decade after the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that separate schools for white and black children were not equal. By the late 1960s, many school districts stalled on implementing Brown. As a result, lawsuits prompted courts to order some school districts to use busing to bring black students to primarily white schools and vice versa. Some districts, such as Ms. Harris’ district in Berkeley, voluntarily bused students to integrate schools. 

The use of busing for desegregation fell off in the 1990s after a series of court orders ruled against the practice and released many school districts from their busing obligations. 

Was busing effective?

From the standpoint of integration and academic achievement, the busing period of the 1960s-80s was effective. Schools achieved their highest levels of racial integration in the early 1980s. Recent studies found that integration benefited students of all races, academically and socially. 

“It was quite successful because we know that desegregated schools have a range of benefits both for students of color and white students as well,” says Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education at Penn State University. 

Politically, busing policies failed. The practice was unpopular with the American public, and was especially resisted – sometimes violently – by white parents. Protests broke out across the U.S., most famously in Boston in 1974. “The scope of white resistance to desegregation, including using busing, was tremendous. That resistance captured the conversation,” says Ansley Erickson, a professor of history and education at Columbia University in New York. 

Resegregation in American schools rose after busing ebbed in the 1990s. The share of schools whose enrollment is 90% to 100% nonwhite more than tripled from 5.7% in 1988 to 18.2% in 2016, according to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State.

What role does busing play now?

Using busing for desegregation is no longer common in the American public school system. Nationally, about 200 districts remain under court desegregation orders. Some districts establish voluntary programs for school integration, but the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 limited the use of race as a factor in determining school enrollment. 

Currently, more common strategies for desegregation include establishing magnet schools, adjusting attendance zone boundaries, offering a districtwide school choice policy, and taking race into account when considering student transfer requests between schools. Busing is sometimes used as an element of those plans. 

Does the American public support using busing for school integration? 

Busing to desegregate schools is not popular among the American public, even as support for school integration is high. A 2017 poll by PDK International found that 70% of parents would prefer to send their child to a diverse school. However, only 25% of parents said they would prefer a more diverse school if it were located farther away from a closer, but less diverse, school.

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