Americans Favor Diverse Schools But Still Oppose ‘Busing’

Elementary school kids climbing on to a school bus
Stock photo of elementary school kids climbing on to a school bus.

The Democratic Party presidential debates have reignited national discussions on the merits of forced integration of schools based on race and the use of school buses to accomplish it, which the U.S. Supreme Court ended in 2002. It isn’t the description of a yellow school bus that raises voices, it’s the term busing—a politically charged verb that never fails to liven up the conversation.

The results of a September 2019 Gallup Poll provide some insight into the complexities of Americans who on one hand say they support desegregating schools. On the other hand, they oppose redesigning the education system or once again requiring school buses to achieve it. Gallup polled 3,038 adults by phone at the end of July, which built on research that Gallup has been gathering for decades.

It found that more than half of Americans remain critical of using busing to make schools more racially diverse, which the Supreme Court first required in 1971 with Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education. That was 15 years after the Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling on May 17, 1954.

On the flip side, nearly eight in 10 Americans said they support creating regional magnet schools. That opinion included three-quarters of Republican voters, a group which largely opposes other options, like redrawing district boundaries and building low-income housing in high-income suburbs.

Researchers described the act of “busing” as “requiring school districts to bus a certain percentage of students to a neighboring school district to make schools more racially diverse.” Therein may lie the problem. Americans want diverse schools, but they don’t want to be required to go to them.

“If you ask people whether they’re in favor of school integration, overwhelmingly people say yes. If you ask people how they feel typically about school transportation, again they’re pretty supportive,” said Dr. Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education at Penn State University. “It’s only when we talk about busing for school integration that suddenly there’s much less support.”

Dr. Frankenberg has studied school diversity for more than a decade, and in her youth she attended the integrated magnet school Phillips Preparatory in Mobile County, Alabama. Her most recent work, published in the journal of the American Education Research Association in September, focused on school district secessions that began in the south a decade ago but have recently spread to places like Malibu, California. It’s a consequence of school choice, Frankenberg argued, that splits a larger district in two under the auspices of addressing overcrowded schools. In actuality, she said it creates more racially segregated campuses.

According to Gallup, 57 percent of Americans consider racial segregation to be a serious problem in public schools. But people of color and Democrats are more likely to agree than white people or Republican voters. More than two-thirds of black and Hispanic survey respondents said they consider racial segregation to be an issue, compared to half of white respondents.

In addition, three in four people who identify as Democrats are likely to say racial segregation is an issue, compared to three in 10 Republicans.

Most Americans also believe schools are less segregated today than they were 20 years ago, the survey found, but whether or not that is true depends on the district. In 1999, Americans also favored allocating funding to improve neighborhood schools instead of using busing under court order.

For instance, nearly half of current Denver Public Schools students attend racially segregated schools, which is a higher number than in the 1990s. Other districts, like Kent Public School in Seattle and the Hurst- Euless-Bedford Independent School District in Bedford, Texas, are highly rated for achieving diversity.

While it would seem that homogenous neighborhoods inevitably make homogenous schools, that’s not necessarily the case.

“How districts are making decisions about where to build schools, how to assign students to schools and whether they provide transportation to schools, these really make a difference,” Frankenberg said. “If you believe in the benefits of educational diversity, there may need to be compromise in order to make that happen.”

As to whether or not it is the federal government’s role to increase school diversity, Gallup reported that 43 percent of white respondents support government intervention, as opposed to over three-quarters of those who identified themselves as black or Hispanic.

But school integration in 2019 is a puzzle with many more pieces than there were in 1999 or 1969. School populations are increasingly driven by community members and individual families, rather than by the courts or local government.

“A key difference here is that … in the cities, families and students are making these choices. They’re not being pushed to attend one school. In many cities, they’re applying for schools via a lottery,” noted Kristen Blagg, a research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank that conducts economic and social policy research.

Blagg studied the commute times and methods of students in five U.S. cities: Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City and Washington, D.C.

“Transportation is a really key part of any school choice strategy, especially when students are getting assigned to more distant schools,” Blagg observed. “As they likely will be in the school choice system, we need to ensure that they have ways to get there.”

Penn State’s Frankenberg advised that one first step may be upgrading the term “busing” to reflect what it really means when talking about creating the complex transportation infrastructures that are needed to support the modern education system.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the November 2019 issue of School Transportation News.