The Corner

Elections

Sanders and Gillibrand Open to New Federally Mandated Busing Policies

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (right) speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Miami — Kamala Harris’s attack on Joe Biden’s record on race and busing was the biggest flashpoint of Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate. 

“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris said to Biden. “You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Biden said that Harris had mischaracterized his record and then pointed out that he was proud to have advanced civil rights by working as a public defender, not as a prosecutor (like Harris). She pressed Biden to say whether he was wrong in the 1970s to oppose busing, which he would not do. 

But perhaps the more interesting question is not about the past but what, if anything, would a future Democratic president do about busing?

When asked after the debate if he supported reinstating busing policies that Biden opposed in the 1970s, Bernie Sanders told National Review: “I am really concerned about the growing segregation — once again — the resegregation of communities all over this country. We’re seeing more and more schools which are being segregated. And that is something we have to deal with.” Would he use busing to deal with it? “Busing is one tool,” Sanders replied. 

Kirsten Gillibrand also told reporters after the debate that she would impose new federally mandated busing policies on local schools if necessary. “I think every child should be able to go to a good public school. And as president I will assure that. If it needs busing, it needs busing,” Gillibrand told reporters.

And what about Kamala Harris? Would she implement new busing policies if elected president? “We haven’t put a plan out on that or anything, but she supports desegregation,” Harris communications director Ian Sams told National Review.

But as Harris herself said during her exchange with Biden on race and busing: “On this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.” If Democrats have any plans to implement new busing policies along the likes of what Biden opposed in the 1970s, they might want to think that through now, before they are in a general-election matchup with Donald Trump. The details are awfully important.

In Biden’s home state of Delaware in the 1970s, the busing order imposed “racial quotas, sweeping pupil reassignments, school closings and reconfigurations, and bus rides up to an hour each way,” according to one account. “Widespread loss of confidence in the public schools and resistance to busing in the 1980s gave rise to a reversal of the busing order and sparked the charter school movement in the 1990s, and finally led to a legislative reaffirmation of neighborhood schools in 2000.”

“The real problem with busing,” Biden said in the 1970s, was that “you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school . . . and you’re going to fill them with hatred.”

Poor schools and de facto segregation remain real problems in America’s education system. School choice and charter schools may be a good way to address those problems without prompting a backlash, but Democratic candidates beholden to the teachers’ unions aren’t really in a position to embrace those solutions. If they’re going to implement new busing policies as president, they owe it to voters to spell out the details now.

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