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School busing isn’t getting any simpler

Prudence Carter


This op-ed first appeared on 10/15/2012  on

Boston’s mayor, Thomas Menino, is considering proposals to discontinue busing, a historic and politically- fraught practice whose initial aim in the 1970s was to desegregate schools. Subsequent to the implementation of busing during those tumultuous racial moments, white families fled the public schools. Today, only 13% of Boston’s public school students are white, and more than three-quarters of students are poor and working class. Now in times of severe budget deficits and cuts, politicians and educators wonder if they should continue to bus students across neighborhood boundaries when the probability of racial and class integration in schools is low. Should students be allowed to attend neighborhood schools, even segregated ones?

In principle, neighborhood schools should be the most viable option for any school district. Schools have the potential to facilitate community among neighbors. The caveat here, though, is that neighborhood schools in urban communities are most feasible when the quality of all schools in the school district is high. Yet, in the United States, here’s a social fact: separate neighborhood schools will never be equal as long as schools’ resource contexts are tied to the homeowners’ tax base, as well as the additional economic, social, and cultural capital that many middle-class families bring to the local school.

Research shows that the higher the concentration of poor students of color, the higher the percentage of uncertified and less experienced teachers. School quality suffers when teacher quality is low. Furthermore, how will the city of Boston and the public school system assure families that their neighborhood schools will not succumb to the ravages of relative school poverty — or what Jonathan Kozol has documented as “savage inequalities”? Also, in higher income schools, parents tend to be more involved; and students are exposed to many examples of professional models of economic success. They get to experience immeasurable extramural learning through field trips, cultural activities, and their parents’ social contacts to which many low-income children simply do not have exposure.

I have to profess some ambivalence about one alternative to the neighborhood school, however. From my own research, I know that merely placing low-income and/or youth of color in school with a white, middle-class child will not guarantee the eradication of achievement disparities. While the strong educational and pecuniary resources that follow white, middle-class children are enormously helpful, low-income students of color do not necessarily have the same educational experiences as their white peers when they are in school together.

Recently, I completed a cross-national research study of group dynamics within schools of various social compositions in two highly unequal societies — the United States and South Africa. My research team and I surveyed over 1,500 students and conducted hundreds of hours of classroom observations and interviews in eight high schools over multiple years. In the American schools, patterns ranged from the classroom tracking, corresponding to different racial identities, to students’ producing territorial boundaries around who is meant to participate in certain extracurricular activities, to the mere inability to broker strong friendships inside and outside of school with one another. In addition, the expectations for different groups of students varied. That was obvious based on how some teachers talked about who was “smart,” “intelligent,” or “respectable.” Often, those descriptions were not tied to low-income and/or students of color. From this research, I learned firsthand that desegregation is not integration.

Naturally, some parents of color will take the chance and pay the social, psychological, and cultural costs that their children experience at so-called diverse schools for the perception of a better education. After all, research shows that when it comes to test scores, many of these kids are better off at such schools than their counterparts attending the impoverished, segregated ones. With a costs-benefits analysis, they may find that the latter far outweigh the former.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps, we can tolerate inevitable class- and race-segregated neighborhood schools in Boston and elsewhere if, and only if, politicians are willing to guarantee educational equity in terms of resources. The consequence: regrettably, our children will continue to be reared to believe that social inequality and social division are the natural order of things. Read and listen to the news media any day; they are replete with stories about people with utter disregard for one another because of their social and cultural differences—from politicians to ordinary residents.

I keep trying to understand why, in the United States — a nation built on the foundational principle of diversity — we have so much difficulty taking that very same principle and practicing when it to pertains race, ethnicity, and class differences. To ensure the vibrancy of our educational system and nation, we have a moral imperative to diminish the stronghold of racial and class segregation in schools and communities. That’s a matter of individual choice and social and economic policy, of course. The road toward that kind of social progress is still quite long. For now, our children need informed, empathic, and considerate policy makers and educators to act in students’ best interests. What will it be?