Will Busing Get Us Anywhere?

A recent New York Times article started an interesting discussion with its title, “How Do You Get Better Schools? Take the State to Court, More Advocates Say.” The article highlights a wave of lawsuits over quality of education. But an interesting theme arises in many of the interviews. These families may be talking about schools and busing, but they are also talking about their neighborhoods.

Take, for example, Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, who credits all of his children’s academic success to attending racially integrated schools outside their neighborhood. Similar to the ideas behind the “Move-to-Opportunity” policy, Guzman felt like it was important for his children to “be exposed to different cultures and learn from different people” outside their community.

Interestingly enough, Khulia Pringle, education consultant and former charter school teacher, has a similar desire for her children, but she doesn’t think getting her children “out of her neighborhood” is the answer. She wants to bring quality education back to the neighborhood. In her interview she explained:

“If schools in urban areas need more resources, then they should get more resources. It shouldn’t take busing kids to white schools to get those resources,” she said. “It sends a message to black children that the only way you’re going to succeed is to get bused to a white school, leave this ghetto and get out of your neighborhood.”

When asked, Ms. Pringle said she doesn’t have a problem with long-standing programs that bus white children to magnet schools in majority black neighborhoods or busing black children to the suburbs, “but only if it were voluntary and driven by family choice” she explained. “The focus shouldn’t be ‘Let’s get the white kids into this black school,’” she said. “If white kids are going to go, they are going to go because it’s a good school.”

Another voice interviewed in the piece is Daniel Shulman, the lead lawyer in the Minnesota desegregation suit who suggests regional busing as a way to keep white flight from occurring. “If [an] entire seven-county area is part of a remedy... Where are they going to go?” he mused as if a seven-county imprisonment scheme is the best option for making an impact in poor-performing schools.

Busing kids around seven counties assumes that there is nothing bad that can happen as a result of kids spending hours every day on a bus. There are health benefits to walking to school. And there are health costs to making long commutes. Making kids sit on a bus for a couple of extra hours a day seems like a cruel idea if there are other potential ways to solve this problem. This is also environmentally irresponsible. Why put millions of extra bus miles on the road if it’s not necessary?

Although the discussions around race and culture here are important, the overarching question “to bus or not to bus” begs readers to examine a different underlying theme: Communities wouldn’t bus people back and forth if the neighborhoods (and therefore the schools) on either side of school district lines had similar economic prosperity, similar school quality, and a more diverse neighborhood make-up.

If a school is perceived as bad, parents who can afford to will ultimately leave that school district (or in this case maybe sue the state which also cost something), leaving behind the poorest families in communities with less economic stability, more crime, and worse schools. Although busing might allow children from different backgrounds to sit side-by-side at the lunch table, busing won’t fix the neighborhood issues waiting for children at home.

So, why not instead pursue a policy as Ms. Pringle suggests? Why not impact schools and neighborhoods in a way that keeps families from running away to other districts? Change the neighborhood and school reputation. As Ms. Pringle described, she dreams of white families choosing schools in black communities because they are good schools too.

Our research shows that targeting communities of concentrated poverty with school choice not only gives equal opportunity for quality education in those places, but it also draws families back to neighborhoods that are in desperate need of economic revitalization. And did we mention this type of school choice has an impact on school quality too?

So, how do you get better schools? Stop suing the state, and start asking for choice.

Image via Alex Starr