Busing isn't making a comeback
Published January 9, 2020
By John Hood
Although Kamala Harris exited the Democratic presidential field weeks ago, I can think of two ways that the Harris campaign could still leave a significant mark on the politics of 2020.
One is that the California senator might end up as on the national ticket. Leaving the race early may be a strategy to make this more likely, by minimizing any political damage to the eventual Democratic presidential nominee or at least maximizing the time for the nominee to get over it.
The second effect is less speculative. In one of the most compelling and contentious exchanges of the 2019 debate season, Harris attacked Joe Biden on school desegregation — and in the process demonstrated a large gulf between the prevailing sentiments of progressive activists and those of the general public.
At a televised debate last June, Harris criticized what Biden had said back in the 1970s, when he was a young Delaware senator, about large-scale busing as a remedy for school segregation. “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?” she asked. Biden protested that she had served up a “mischaracterization of my position across the board,” that he had opposed only the idea of federal officials compelling states to use busing as a remedy.
“I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats,” Harris said. “We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”
Progressives cheered. They are greatly troubled by the persistence of racial and socioeconomic disparities in school populations, and believe that involuntary student assignment is an essential tool for combatting them.
Here in North Carolina, the issue has special resonance. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system was the birthplace of court-ordered busing. Much later, after race-conscious assignments became legally problematic, Wake County pioneered the use of socioeconomic-based student assignment as a substitute.
In 2009, Republicans won control of the Wake school board by attracting the votes of parents reacting against the frequent reassignment of their children. Diversity had been only one of the causes — many students were reassigned simply to fill new schools in the fast-growing county — but for many parents, it was the most objectionable. They demanded change.
The Republicans prepared an alternative assignment policy but lost control of the school board before it could be implemented. Notably, however, when Democrats regained the majority, they didn’t simply revert to the prior policy.
That was prudent. While most people place a high value on diverse student enrollments, they care about other values, too. In particular, parents reasonably desire a sense of control over the circumstances of their children’s education, including its location. Calling them names won’t change their minds.
Most polls show widespread support for school-integration remedies such as building lower-income housing to diversify neighborhoods and creating magnet schools in low-income areas to attract other students with the promise of academic rigor or unique offerings. Busing fares poorly in those same polls.
For example, a 2017 Phi Delta Kappa poll found that, all other things being equal, 70 percent of parents prefer that their children attend racially balanced schools while 20 percent prefer they attend schools where the students are “mostly of the same race.” That’s a strong vote for diversity as a goal. But when asked about a scenario in which having their child attend the more-diverse school would require “a longer commute,” only 25 percent of parents remained in favor, with 60 percent opposed.
Kamala Harris seemed initially to prevail in her exchange with Biden on the subject. As it lingered in the news for a while, however, the Harris balloon deflated. Did she really mean the federal government should try to reinstate busing? Most voters seem disinclined to refight that battle.
North Carolina school districts can and will continue to promote diversity in a variety of ways. But the days of involuntary assignments and cross-district busing to accomplish it are long gone. Inadvertently, Harris confirmed this reality of education policy in the 21st century.