Hurrah! It’s time to celebrate Boston’s 40th anniversary of forced busing. This month marks four decades from the court decision that kicked off mandatory desegregation. September will be 40 years from when the first yellow buses started rolling. Expect to hear many conversations and reminiscences about Boston’s great social experiment: the racism it exposed, the trauma it caused, and how the city has since changed (or not).
What won’t get much discussion is how busing was designed to help improve the quality of education in Boston. And for good reason. Busing — no matter which side you were on — was all about social engineering. Education, at best, was tangentially connected.
Busing per se, of course, isn’t a bad thing. If you want to go to a school and need a ride, it’s a decent way to get there. It became an epithet because it was the means used to comply with the state’s 1965 Racial Imbalance Act. The goal was to rid the state of segregation, and after a long series of court decisions a federal court found that the Boston School Committee (back then, a separately elected body) had intentionally discriminated against black students, creating what amounted to two segregated school systems. Schools serving white children were well funded. Schools for black children were short-changed, with crowded facilities, poor teachers, and second-rate materials. White kids were channeled toward the city’s college preparatory schools; black kids were pushed toward trade schools.
If the goal had been to bring education for black kids up to snuff — to provide schools in black neighborhoods with the resources needed to do their job — one could imagine a different result. The court might have insisted money be reallocated and policies changed to deliver a decent education to all. But school quality really wasn’t on the agenda.
Many opponents to busing had their own agenda too: neighborhood schools. Those, too, had little to do with education itself. In their conception, schools were social and cultural centers, places around which civic life revolved. Busing, they feared, would disrupt that, ripping apart the fabric of the community.
Both social engineering ideals have appeal. Schools ideally should be mixing bowls, where students learn about other kids and other families from far different backgrounds. And folks within tight-knit neighborhoods can support and help one another, creating community norms that pass on values from one generation to the next.
But while both are nice — bonus points, if you will — each is trumped by education itself. Look at what rich people do: They seek out the best possible schools for their kids. They may move to towns where school spending is high and hence the education thought better. Or they may send their children to private schools. I know of more than a few young couples who profess themselves ardent supporters of public schools until their children are born and, suddenly, they find themselves back-peddling. It’s perfectly understandable. When it comes to your own kid’s future, everything else is secondary.
Busing produced some good, notably in opening up the city and breaking down barriers, but overall it has to be judged as a failure. It was doomed to be so. For one, the real source of segregation is region-wide housing patterns, something busing kids in one relatively small city wouldn’t change. And more to the point, the key to wiping out poverty, ending discrimination, and giving all an equal shot at life is education — which busing and its aftermath effectively undermined.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Boston’s school system exacerbated segregation and poverty because it ill-served children from black communities. If things had been different, if those kids had had great teachers and plentiful resources, if they had graduated high school and then successfully gone on to college, where would they be today? Far better off, and undoubtedly so also would be their children and even grandchildren.
The take-away from our remembrances of busing should not be a rehash of the past, but rather a focus on the future: The best social engineering of all would be to give poor and minority kids the same kind of educations as children of the rich.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org