The Corner


Desegregating Schools without Busing

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at a campaign stop in Concord, N.H., February 18, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard has some new comments from Kamala Harris:

There are a few things to unpack here.

First of all, while it’s not true that schools have “resegregated,” as some claim (see here, here, and here), it is fair to say that desegregation has been pretty slow. And yes, one of the reasons it’s slow is that the gradual end of court-ordered integration has canceled out some of the effect of rising residential integration (which isn’t happening all that fast itself).

Second, it is true that segregation is bad even when it’s not legally mandated the way it was during Jim Crow. Integrated schools seem to provide better education for minority students and by definition facilitate more cross-race contact.

However, reducing segregation via forced busing — i.e., sending kids farther away from home than the neighborhood school, sometimes very far indeed — just didn’t go all that well. Whites hated it. So did a substantial minority of blacks.

The failures of busing were widely recognized even on the left not too long ago. In 2014 Slate ran a multi-part series about how liberals’ “embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration.” (“Many black Americans did believe in the school bus and the access it provided, and busing might have been a viable tool for those families had it been smartly and surgically applied. It wasn’t. It was presented in a sweeping fashion that denied many blacks the agency they sought.”) The next year, responding to an earlier iteration of the Great Biden Busing Debate, Politico ran a piece from a former Johnson White House official called “School Busing Didn’t Work. And to Say So Isn’t Racist.” (“No black parents took a bus or drove from Southwest [D.C.] to attend evening PTA meetings [in the city’s Northwest] or to otherwise participate in school-related activity. The quality of classroom instruction fell off markedly. Fourth- and fifth-grade neighborhood students, for instance, were repeating material learned in earlier grades because teachers found their bused classmates had not yet received it.”)

In a print piece last year I spelled out some more feasible ways of integrating schools, though they’re probably a bit too libertarian for the current Democratic slate. Charter schools, voucher systems, and letting parents choose among a city’s public schools can bring children from segregated schools into integrated ones, especially if they’re designed with that goal in mind. We could also integrate schools indirectly, by integrating neighborhoods, including by scaling back overly restrictive zoning rules.

As I concluded: “Americans of different races are, of their own volition, living side by side more and more as time goes on. And we can coax this trend along by helping people achieve their preferences, rather than by overriding those preferences.”

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