Busing - Is it Worth it for Diversity in Schools?

A teacher-writer, Sean Riley, at The Stranger thinks so.  It's a pretty lengthy article but one that has good history that I hadn't heard before (not having grown up here.)
In total, 10 of my 13 years in Seattle Public Schools involved long rides on a school bus. Between the ages of 6 and 9 alone, I logged thousands of miles looking at the city from a green vinyl seat. This is true for thousands of Seattleites. Seattle Public Schools used busing from the late 1970s through the mid-2000s in the hopes of achieving racial integration. To give just one snapshot of the program's breadth: In 1980, mandatory busing involved 12,000 of the district's 54,000 students.
He has one pretty funny line (but I'm not sure if he meant it to be funny):
It was watching the OJ verdict with black kids and getting so caught up, I joyfully sprinted in the halls with them for a second. 
About that history of how busing came to Seattle:
Six weeks after the school board's vote to expand Seattle's integrated busing program, the Citizens for Voluntary Integration Committee (CIVIC) launched a ballot initiative to prohibit students from going to schools that were across the city from their homes. Sixty percent of Seattleites voted "yes" for this initiative. Though the initiative was deemed unconstitutional two years later by the US Supreme Court, its broad local support revealed deep fissures among Seattleites and, in general, insufficient dedication to integrating our city's schools.
On the Supreme Court ruling that ended Seattle's use of race as a tiebreaker:
In 2000, a group in Seattle called Parents Involved in Community Schools sued the district, claiming the policy violated a ban on using racial preferences in public education. Their case, which became paired with a similar Louisville case, arrived at the US Supreme Court in 2006. The high court, drastically altering the legacy of Brown, concluded that public schools couldn't use race as the sole determining factor for assigning students to schools. Though Louisville—with waves of public support—vowed to figure out another means to integrate its schools, Seattle shrugged. Here, the new Supreme Court decision was welcomed. Our city's attempts at using busing to integrate our schools ended—not because integration failed, but because Seattle failed integration.
I'd have to go see what Louisville did but I can't blame SPS for being gun-shy.  The Court said you could use race as part of a whole plan but didn't really say how.  I suspect districts were worried about how to use race after that.  (But here's a NY Times story on a pilot program that uses socio-economic status to create diversity.)

Here's what he says about Louisville:
Because home buyers in Louisville knew that all schools had the same racial composition and were provided the same resources, housing segregation in Louisville actually decreased by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010.
 I could see how that could work to provide diversity but that must be some interesting enrollment plan.  As for "same resources" that's a bit of a tough nut because of the programs that exist and what students they service.

Fun fact:
Sir Mix-A-Lot, who was bused from the Central District to Eckstein and later Roosevelt, called busing "the best thing that could have happened to me."
 His fear as a teacher:
More than any other feeling—and I have many—when I think of the vast differences in Seattle's public schools today, I grieve more than I rage. All kids are missing out on the opportunity to know one another, to know "the other," to envision new ways to be and understand.
His solutions?
-First off, the Seattle Public School District—a district that currently disciplines black kids four times more often than whites—must immediately increase professional development around culturally responsive and socially just instruction.

This is already on the Superintendent's list.

- Seattle teachers should also blaze the trail on creating cross-district and inter-district collaborations.  
- Writers in the Schools (WITS) and I are currently developing a collaborative writing project between Blaine and South End middle schools.
- In the long-term, I propose something called the Seattle Civics Academy. Pulling students from all over the district, this would be a semester-long program that all Seattle high-school students would participate in at some point in their school careers. They would get to choose when, but no student could opt out—the overwhelming flaw in Seattle's integration plan.

Locally, we need to be asking ourselves and our neighbors: Do we truly think we are better separate than together? 

I had several comments, in particular around cost which Mr. Riley doesn't mention at all and it certainly would cost more to better integrate our schools.

My other comments:

But the district has the power to control the boundaries and NOT create more segregation and yet, they are doing it as we speak. They are reopening a school in the far NE called Cedar Park that will end up hugely as kids of color/free/reduced lunch. The current schools that serve these students - Olympic Hills and John Rogers - do NOT want these kids to leave their schools for the precise reasons Mr. Riley points out. To add insult to injury, the Cedar Park kids get a crummy old building with probably the smallest library in the district plus about 6 portables while Olympic Hills will get a brand-new shiny building for mostly white kids. It's just appalling but so far, staff doesn't seem to get it.

He did have one other statement that caught my eye:
"The sudden flurry to efficiently help poor kids resulted not in a radical reinvention of schooling, but a ratcheting up of tasks and stress. "

When I read that sentence, the first phrase that came to mind? Charter schools. Want to see segregation? Look at the divide in many charter schools and who they serve. 


Anonymous said…
The OJ line is funny to me because I know exactly what he meant, and have virtually the same memory. I too was bussed across town in another state, to a school that was mostly black. And while we may look at the OJ trial differently today, at that time, in that community, it was totally about race. TVs were brought into classrooms for the verdict and when it was announced, the entire school - students and teachers alike - were cheering, including the few white kids.

Again, as adults, 20 years on, I think most of us look at it a little differently. But it was a moment in time.

Being part of a desegregation program was definitely a valuable experience, and I think went a long way in teaching things like empathy, being aware of privilege, etc. That being said, there were definite problems in being part of a forced program that went beyond feeling awkward or uncomfortable. And I really think there's got to be a better way than sticking kids on busses for two hours a day.

-Car Sick

Anonymous said…
I wonder if one of the things Louisville has going for it is much shorter transportation times/better traffic flow. I think evening out the resources and programs here is something that should be done regardless and isn't the huge deal many make it out to be. There's no reason (that makes any sense to me :)) that each area within Seattle has a language school, a Montessori option, an expeditionary option or whatever we decide there should be and then enrollment in those schools is lottery within the area (5 regions or whatever) so everyone has some access. And the rest of the schools have the same math curriculum, language arts/reading program, art, gym, music offerings, etc. Then maybe integrate within the region. There's no reasonable reason Cedar Park lines should be drawn to hold the most disadvantaged kids. But at the same time, most people are only going to sign their kids up for what could be an hour long bus ride to the other end of the city when there's 10+ elementary schools they pass along the way if it's really a better option, especially for K-2s. People who can, will generally otherwise opt out.

NE Parent
Anonymous said…
Practical problems:

1. Extremely expensive. Why not use the money to directly improve education at the school sites rather than shuffling the students?
2. Given traffic levels since the 1980's you couldn't bus the kids to the same schools in this article even in an hour anymore. The logistics are only getting worse.
3. Involuntary Busing and the reaction against it drives people from the public system and ultimately from the city (Seattle lost 28% in the first 3 years). Voluntary magnet programs to encourage diversity have tended to work better.
4. It would be unconstitutional after the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, No. 05-908.
5. Demographics in the city makes this increasingly difficult.
6. Its surprisingly easy to self segregate even when in the same building see Garfield.

- add name here
Anonymous said…
* doesn't have... i.e. Each area should offer the same things.

NE Parent
Unknown said…
I think this is a great article, because it gives us a fresh take on busing from a kid (turned grown-up.) We often spend a lot of time discussing these kinds of issues from all sorts of grown-up perspectives while missing out on the viewpoints of the kids involved. I would like to hear more about this from other kids (now grown-ups) who were bused and what they thought about it. I'm not sure it was always a positive experience.

My take of busing is that it could be done, but it would have to be "narrowly tailored" to fit the objective of the district, and the Supreme Court thought that the program in Seattle was not narrowly tailored to meet its objective. The Department of Education does have a rather lengthy bulletin entitled "Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity and Avoid Racial Isolation in Elementary and Secondary Schools". It lists the use of school and program siting, grade realignment and feeder patterns, school zoning, open enrollment, competitive admission programs, and finally inter- and intra-district transfers. None of these sound like a very robust or even systemic method for achieving a more diverse student population in a large school district. Having said that, it seems like the Cedar Park/Olympic Hills situation is definitely a situation in which it would seem like more thought would have been given to how to cite it to minimize the impact of racial isolation.
Anonymous said…
I'm confused why she was joyful to watch a rich black cold blooded murder get erroneously set free. Do you hear that sound? It the sound of OJ slashing and gashing the Ron and Nicole.

Anonymous said…
The busing was a mistake, just ask the students from Wilson Middle school. What a disaster. The black students did not want to be there and after 2 years of assaults and other disruptions the white students fought back.

Yes it's one of SPS's dirty little secrets and most people don't want to know the truth. Today things have changed for the better in spite of the reports or bloggers continuous waving of the race flag.

Congratulations to all the students for not taking the bait.

End PC
Anonymous said…
Disgusting, I remember the trial at the time and at that time it was all about race. There is no doubt that the justice system is stacked against minorities. It was even worse then. They were cheering for a black man who beat the system, not for a murderer. The whole event was such a sideshow attraction. At the time, I was too young to really understand what was going on. Now, I believe that he did it, but then, I wasn't so sure.

We went private school for our kids because I didn't want my oldest bussed to the gifted school at that time. My youngest went public for high school and part of the appeal was that it was within walking distance. Hale is more diverse than many of the high schools in the north end. It has been a good experience as well as a good education.


Anonymous said…
A lot of white guilt hand-wringing here. Asians seem to be invisible ( once again ) in these discussions.

Let's be honest, bussing pushed many middle class families, who were predominantly white ( and some Asians, but we seem to be invisible ) out of Seattle. If we want lift everyone up, let's focus on income/class based boundaries, equitable funding ( not just punting to Title I status ), PTA fund sharing (gasp!), better identification for HCC/APP/?

Revisiting a broken model that is UNCONSTITUTIONAL is not going to work, but we can be honest about some of the structural racism in some of the established high-status schools in this district.

Anonymous said…
I was bused to Washington in the central district from Ballard in the mid 80s. It was a really good experience for me, one I wouldn't change. It actually enabled me to go to school with kids who were more like me economically (poor) than if I had attended the neighborhood school, Whitman. Segregation, however, definitely happened at school. Horizon (now called Spectrum) was all white. Regular classes were predominately black. I started in the regular track, got moved into Spectrum a few months into the year. In 7th grade I was sick of all the work I had to do in Horizon, so went down to regular for a semester. It was shocking how much easier the regular track was. I moved back to Horizon at the semester. I was able to make friends in both levels, though, which was great.
I have three kids in HCC. The lack of economic and racial diversity kills me. They go to school with kids who go on vacations every break, Europe in the summer. I hate that they think that is normal.
I'm not sure what the answer is.
-WMS '86
Anonymous said…
I agree 100% that our schools should be more diverse. That said I would likely put up a fuss if you tried to bus my elementary school kids across town. Perhaps a few simple first steps could be eliminate the distance tie-breaker for school choice. And allow kids who qualify for free lunch to get first choice in option schools - which could at least diversify the economic backgrounds of kids at some of the schools.

NW Mom
Anonymous said…
Bussing is a big waste of time. Spending hours on a bus to attend a school further away without any particular advantages makes no sense. In this day of gridlocked traffic, it seems idiotic.

We have lost too many students to private schools. These families could have been boosters of public schools.

SPS is saving lots of money by not spending it on bussing. Use it to buy better math textbooks and prepare kids for college.

S parent
RamblingAsianDude, you bring up a long-time issue for me - why are Asians consistently left out of race issues? I don't get it but maybe if I start a thread, people will give us their thoughts.
LMM said…
I don't support busing for elementary school children.
Anonymous said…
Whoa, the OJ trial went down really differently in California. I was with a bunch of black football players at a large public, division 1 university(lots of kids on sports scholarship from very impoverished backgrounds) when the verdict came down, and they were all very angry and hated OJ, for squandering the gifts they were working so hard to get, and making it harder for the rest of them. Sort of about race, but no one was cheering. We would have followed it all much more closely for longer, though. But yeah, no cheering. A lot of anger.

I was bussed as a child, but in the south. It was a frankly terrible experience for everyone involved, and wrecked that particular school district for the following generation. It was a very poor district, though, with no extra supports added to aid the integration, and the black schools had previously made some headway creating positive black environments before the bussing, which was a huge loss to those school communities they were understandably angry to have taken away "for their own good." It does seem to have worked well in places with more supports. I am interested in what this author has to say, but I think we should focus on drawing boundaries better(if for no other reason than traffic.), and what we can do as a city to address gaping inequality, especially with zoning. I know this is my drumbeat here, but the school district can only do so much. The city is exploding with wealth and growth, not evenly distributed. It's going to be (is) a wild ride.

I also am very frustrated that in a city with such a large Asian population we just whitewash Asians. I think it's accelerated in the last 5 years (since Asian students now do so much better than white students, and I think you have to be in a group performing lower than the default- ie, white students- to be considered minority. Could be wrong, but it feels a bit off to me.).

Snarkalicious said…
First of all, +1 re: Sleeper's comment about whitewashing Asians. I feel like they are left out of the conversation here and just about everywhere else. Would be curious to hear more from this and other underrepresented groups (Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and sometimes even Latinos seem absent from the back and forth about diversity and race).

I lived in Seattle for 20 years, spent a few years in Berkeley, and recently returned. I was extremely impressed with the way Berkeley integrated its schools. The city was divided into zones that were relatively close to one's home, parents could list their top three choices for elementary schools (middle schools were one per zone and there is only one high school), and the entire system was calibrated to ensure a fairly balanced socioeconomic and racial make-up at every school. Of course, you can drive from one end of Berkeley to the other in about 20 minutes. I suspect the same is true of Champaign, Louisville, and Cumberland.

In contrast, Seattle is extremely spread out, and its geography makes a straight-shot commute quite difficult. Traffic is undeniably terrible, parents are working long hours, and - perhaps most importantly - before and after-school care on location at elementary schools is being axed to make space for pre-K programs. How can we better integrate schools without adversely affecting our families' quality of life? How can we achieve more diversity while allowing parents to invest time and energy in their own neighborhood communities?

One solution could be for Seattle Public Schools to get its act together in supporting advanced learning at EVERY SCHOOL. Time after time, families who can afford to end up pulling their kids from SPS and heading to private schools, or fleeing their neighborhood schools for the very few public schools with dedicated programs to support advanced learners. There has to be a way to set the bar higher at our schools. The focus has been so relentlessly set on "closing the achievement gap" that there is little room for kids who need more. And there are MANY brown and black kids who need more.

We are a pretty awesome city, with an extremely educated population. We have some of the highest literacy rates in the country here. There is money everywhere you look. I think it's time for us to experience an equally awesome public school system. For every student, at every school. High quality schools will pull the private school kids back and cause those who have the money and time to invest in their neighborhood schools, thus serving ALL students more effectively. Just a thought.
Snarkalicious, I have said, over and over for years and years, that this could be the best urban district in the country. I believe that given our city and its support of public education.
Anonymous said…
Berkeley has about 100,000 people in about 10 square miles of land. Its demographic diversity is fairly evenly distributed geographically. (Poorer closer to the freeway, wealthier closer to the hills.) With this vertical distribution you can slice the city horizontally in thirds and get a nice economic crossection. Seattle has about 660,000 people in about 80 square miles... I do think you could do something interesting by just trying to integrate within the various regions of the city. As a NE parent I would be open to the idea of busing just within the NE for example. I think a lot could be accomplished within this smaller scope without kids spending hours and hours on the bus.

NE Mom
Anonymous said…
This conversation reminds me of concerns that families brought up during the switch from the Choice enrollment system to the current Attendance Area rules.

We were told all of the savings for a need for less bussing would be monies returned to the classroom. Did that happen? I would say no. There has been an increase in funding for things like technology to support, and for testing, but individual school budgets have been dramatically reduced if not completely eliminated for support services such as counselors, nurses, librarians....

Parents expressed concern about being drawn into the boundary of a school viewed as failing. The SPS spin was that once all these parents really engaged with their community school, and with all those extra transportation savings returned to schools there would be a big turnaround. Did this happen?

Parents also expressed the concern that our schools would become desegregated. The district response was that families could always apply for any school in the district via the open enrollment choice system. Parents knew that our schools were already dangerously overcrowded and there would be no room for choice assignments. And what happened with this parent prediction?

As long as parents are ignored by our district, and unless our elected oversight reclaims the steering of this wayward vessel - I have zero confidence that SPS will start directing their decisions based on best practices for student learning and best practices for student success K-12 and beyond.

3inSPS said…
their are packets of FRL areas in the north as well as the south and if the district wanted they could incorporate a better mix of students. But oddly enough it is like they try to do just the opposite. Look at WMS boundaries once Meany reopens it so gerrymandered that many kids within blocks WMS are going to be bused instead to Meany and those right next to Mercer are going to bused to WMS. This effectively funnels FRL kids to WMS and Mercer and less so likely FRL kids to Meany. It's a shame. I believe the same can be said for schools around Lake City.
Jon said…
Busing doesn't seem very practical. I have three problems with it:

Cost: It's expensive to do the busing, money that comes out of the classroom.

Time: Busing puts kids in buses for 2+ hours every day. Is that better than time studying or in after school activities?

Diversity: It isn't at all clear busing improves the diversity or quality of education for children in Seattle. All the evidence I've ever heard is anecdotal (I had a great time with mandatory busing!) and mostly ignores (or even treats as positive) people leaving Seattle public schools.
Ms206 said…
I think that busing within sections of the city is a good compromise.
Ms206 said…
I think that busing within sections of the city is a good compromise.
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