The Right Historical Question about Busing

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris accused Vice President Joe Biden of cozying up to segregationists, the issue of busing has been back in the headlines. Instead of asking why busing failed or why it worked, the right question should be about where busing worked. The lesson from the twentieth century is clear: When reformers try to use schools to ram through social change, even with the purest of intentions, it won’t work.

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

Vice President Biden’s political problems about busing came about long before Senator Harris’s accusations. Months ago, the Washington Post ran an exposé about Biden’s leading role in the 1970s as an opponent of court-ordered desegregation. Biden 2020 has been forced to defend decisions made by Biden 1975, and it hasn’t been easy.

Since the debate, historians and commentators have skewered the notion that busing did not achieve its aims. As Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, the issue was never about busing itself, but about stark racism. The problem was not that busing didn’t work to integrate students of different races and backgrounds, but precisely that it did.

Historically, the politics of school integration are part of a broader pattern of school reform. Whenever reformers have tried to use schools to change society for the better, they have discovered the difficult truth. Namely, whatever the issue—racial integration, socialism, or progressive education—when reformers fail to enroll community support, their efforts at social improvement have been crushed. When they do, however, the results can be surprisingly effective.

In the late 1930s, for example, textbook author Harold Rugg came under fire for his popular textbook series. The series had been adopted by schools nationwide and the books were used by millions of American schoolchildren. As World War II heated up, however, conservative groups such as the America Legion came to believe that the books had a subversive, anti-American intent. The books, conservative critics charged, hoped to transform American society into a socialist state.

Professor Rugg protested that he was no socialist; he claimed a “deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.” Yet he admitted that he really did hope to transform society. In Rugg’s vision, decisions about proper curriculum should not be left in the hands of the ignorant community, but rather decided only by “competent experts” like himself. He dismissed protesters as irrational ignoramuses and their impassioned rallies as mere “Wednesday-evening testimony meetings of Holy Rollers.”

A generation later, a similar textbook controversy roiled Kanawha County, West Virginia. Protesters in 1974 and 1975 worried that a new textbook series derided traditional American values. In part, the protesters were right. As one editor of the books later recalled, he really had hoped the books would inject the “progressive energy” of 1960s radicalism into classrooms nationwide. The books took a “strong stand for pluralism and multicultural expression” that the editors hoped would overthrow the “conventions” of traditional schools and classrooms.

A laudable goal, but like Harold Rugg’s vision of “expert”-centered educational reform, the top-down reformism of the 1970s textbooks failed. Protesters in Kanawha County boycotted their schools; they convinced their Parent-Teacher Association that the new progressive textbooks were “literally full of anti-Americanism, anti-religion, and discrimination.”

The same lessons apply to the history of 1970s school desegregation—“busing”—that Biden and Harris have brought back to the headlines. On one hand, the policy of busing students to mitigate segregation often worked to improve both racial integration and educational outcomes.

On the other, busing policies often met ferocious political backlash from outraged white parents and activists. Most famously, as historian Ron Formisano described so powerfully, in Boston anti-busers rejected the attempts of Judge W. Arthur Garrity to impose more racial equality in schools.

All cities were not Boston, however. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the simple black-and-white politics of busing looked different. When President Reagan trotted out his anti-busing rallying cry in 1984, it fell on deaf ears. Busing, Reagan charged,

takes innocent children out of the neighborhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants, and we found out that it failed.

What Reagan didn’t realize, and many people in today’s revisit to the 1970s busing debates seem to have forgotten as well, was that some white people embraced busing. The crowd in Charlotte met Reagan’s dog-whistles with stony silence, and the next day the Charlotte Observer insisted that the city’s “proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system.”

reagan in charlott

White voters hate busing, right? …right?

Certainly, North Carolina was no racial utopia. But the differences between Boston and Charlotte serve as an important reminder of the real question in school segregation and busing. They are reminders that go back long past the 1970s, to Harold Rugg and before.

Whatever the issue, when social reformers hope to use schools to effect wide-ranging improvements in society, they can only hope to succeed if they enlist the support of at least a portion of the local community. Harold Rugg did not realize that people outside his college would not simply cede control of their textbooks to his “expert” hands. Protesters in West Virginia were not willing to accept books thrust upon them by editors fueled by the “progressive energy” of the radical 1960s.

The successes of busing, too, were not limited to improvements in integration and educational success. When integrationists managed to line up local support, as with Charlotte’s Democratic Party, busing also achieved significant political support. When they didn’t, as with Boston’s aggrieved segregationists, busing failed.

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…Could This Possibly Work?

I’m really asking: Does anyone think that white supremacist organizations will  have much luck recruiting on college campuses? According to Inside Higher Education, that’s the reason groups such as the American Identity Movement put up leaflets.

White supremacy posters IHE REAL

…do these things actually work?

Why would they spend time putting up these posters on campuses? According to the Anti-Defamation League, the goal of these white supremacists is to

inject their views into spaces they view as bastions of liberal thinking and left-wing indoctrination.

So here’s my naive question: Is there any possibility some college student will see these posters and think, ‘hmmm, you know that makes a lot of sense”…?

I can’t imagine it, but I know I’m not normal. According to last year’s ADL report, most of the campus “recruiting” was done far away from sunny Binghamton, in Texas and California, Washington state and Florida.

I just can’t imagine this sort of thing getting any traction on our campus. Are other colleges different?

Why Is There a Racial Divide about Charter Schools?

It is an uncomfortable issue for progressive white people to talk about. As the Democratic Party swings hard against charter schools, the racial divide is becoming painfully obvious. Black and Latinx Democrats support charter schools at much higher rates than white ones do. So what gives? Are suburban whites being insensitive to urban concerns? Probably. But there is another obvious point that needs to be included in the discussion.support-for-charter-scools by raceIf you haven’t heard it already, you will soon. White Democrats who oppose charter schools will be accused of racial insensitivity, at best. As the Washington Post’s editors put it,

It’s easy to oppose charters if you are well-off and live in a suburb with good schools.

The racial divide in the Democratic Party on the issue of charter schools has been and will be painted as a simple urban/suburban divide. And there’s some important truth to that. However, we’d be silly if we didn’t also recognize the context.

Namely, for the past thirty years, on certain issues, Black Democrats have often been far more conservative than white ones. As just one example, take the issue of abortion rights. In 2018, just over three quarters (76%) of all Democrats supported legal abortion rights “in all or most cases.” Just under one quarter (21%) wanted abortion illegal “in all or most cases.”

party and abortion 2018

No surprise here…

African American voters, however, tended to be much more conservative about abortion rights. Only 60% of African Americans supported legal abortion rights, compared to 38% who opposed them.

What does this mean? Not all that much, of course. Not all African-American voters are Democrats, though many are. And on plenty of other issues African-American Democrats do not skew more conservative than white Democrats.race and abortion 2018

When it comes to charter schools, however, we should remember that racial divisions within the Democratic Party are the norm, not an anomaly. If the issue of charter schools is shifting—AND IT IS—from one with bipartisan support to one with solely conservative support, we should not be surprised to find more conservative Democrats sticking with it. On many issues, including LGBTQ rights and abortion rights, non-white Democrats have always been more conservative than whites.

The racial divide about charter schools is just joining a party divide already in progress.

From the Archives: School a la Carte

In newspapers from the early 1800s, they are everywhere. Individual proprietors advertised their services to the population of cities. Parents and children could slap together as much education as they could afford, with rates published up front. It might sound like a purely private, market-driven system, but the fine print shows it wasn’t that simple.

a la carte education

From Freedom’s Journal (New York), October 17, 1828

In this case the school was for African-American kids in Philadelphia, c. 1828. As I’ve argued recently in the Washington Post, I think conservatives who dream of injecting more market forces into public education don’t really understand how things worked back when the market WAS in control. As I dig through the newspapers and records of African-American schools in the early 1800s, it is obvious that tuition payments alone could not provide the schools kids needed.

Sure, some families likely thrived with schools like these, but even these “private” academies relied on public funding. As you can see in this advertisement, Philadelphia’s Academy didn’t survive on tuition alone. It also received

liberal patronage from a generous public.

Over time, that patronage evolved into reliable, secure tax funding. Then and only then were schools able to flourish, for both white and black students. When people these days yearn for public schools that don’t rely entirely on tax funding, they don’t seem to realize what they are asking for.

In the bad old days of early public schooling, schools like the Morris’ Alley Academy were forced to cobble together funding from all over the place. I think if Gloucester and Jones could sit down with DeVos and Friedman, they would set them straight.

From the Archives: Who Are Schools REALLY For?

In theory, it’s not surprising. But it’s still always weird to see people talking so blatantly about it. InkedInsurrection 1826_LI

The latest came from my work at the Library Company in Philadelphia. A group of English “Ladies” were raising money in 1826 to educate enslaved people in the West Indies. Their pitch? Educated slaves are the most loyal. As they put it,

wherever insurrections have taken place, the instructed Negroes have invariably been found the most faithful to their masters. It is not surprising that these facts, confirmed as they have been by the reports of other individuals, and now become notorious, should have contributed to remove the prejudices that formerly existed against Negro education.

“Some People Just Don’t Value Education”

Teachers! Has anyone NOT heard this ugly phrase at some point? It’s everywhere. We see it in every new TV show about schools. I’m also finding heavy doses of it in the archives as I work on my new book. For hundreds of years now, the myth has not gone away. And it fuels America’s worst impulses.

insecure no students

From season 2, episode 1: No matter how good the snacks, students just don’t show up

Consider a few examples. These days, when I’m not in the archives, I’m watching Insecure on TV. It’s great. The main character, Issa, works for a non-profit that tries awkwardly to provide educational resources for low-income Black and Latinx students. In season 2, episode 1, she and her co-worker try desperately to bribe students to attend their afterschool tutoring session. At first, when the students do come, they only steal the snacks and run away. What is Issa supposed to do? She can’t help kids with their Geometry if they won’t show up.

Every teacher could tell similar stories. How is it possible—every teacher ever has asked—how is it possible to teach kids who don’t come to school? How can we beef up resources for kids whose parents don’t come to parent-teacher conferences?

Here’s the worst news—there has never been a time when this WASN’T the case. As I’m finding in my current research, two hundred years ago African-American leaders had a very difficult time convincing African Americans in New York and Philadelphia to send their children to the cities’ free schools. As The Reverend Peter Williams preached to the African-American congregants of St. Philip’s in New York City, April 27, 1828, free public schools were available for African-American students, but only a fifth of the city’s eligible black kids attended. As The Rev. Williams exhorted,

Brethren, if any of you have children that are not at school, do send them, and if you see any coloured children in the city, that are not receiving the benefit of an education, do use your influence with their parents, to have them sent to these fountains of wisdom. By so doing you will serve the interests of the community at large, and the interests of your immortal souls. It is a work of that Divine charity, which greater than, either faith or hope, never faileth, and covereth a multitude of sins.

Even back then, there were plenty of low-income families who just didn’t seem to value school. This long and sad history has led some people to a tragically mistaken conclusion. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts every teacher out there has come across it at some point in our careers. We’ll be wondering how to bridge this gap between school and family, and someone will say knowingly, “Some people just don’t value education.”

The implications are clear and they are terrible. The suggestion is that lower-income families, especially non-white ones, don’t put much emphasis on school for their children. The second implication is worse. It is as if teachers are telling one another not to bother TOO much, because no matter what, some families just don’t care.

Anyone spending two seconds in the archive will see that this cynical bit of teacher lore is utterly untrue. It’s just not true that low-income people don’t value schools. Historically, African Americans have always gone to extreme lengths to provide schools and education for their children. In Providence, Rhode Island, for example, a group of African Americans banded together in 1819 to build a schoolhouse for their children. It was burned down twice, but the families persisted. As one (white) sympathizer commented,

The active zeal evinced by many of the people of colour, in the town of Providence, to provide a place for the education of their children, and the public worship of GOD, is, in our opinion, exceedingly laudable, and worthy of the liberal encouragement of all good people. . . . The people of colour in this town, raised among themselves about five hundred dollars. Their Christian friends, sensible that too little attention had been paid to this class of community, cheerfully assisted them by their prayers and advice.

The dedication and devotion of countless real-life communities like the one in Providence raises a difficult question. Namely, if parents and communities were so dead-set on providing schools for their children, no matter what the obstacles, then why did African Americans who had access to free schools in New York and Philadelphia not take advantage of them?

I’ve found a couple of clues during this research trip. Consider, for example, the conclusion of one New York African American writer. This anonymous person wrote in the African-American newspaper Freedom’s Journal (March 30, 1827) that African-American kids should stay in school, even though, as the writer put it,

Is it asked [sic], What avails it, that we educate our children, seeing that having bestowed every attention in our power to meet this end we find them excluded from patronage suited to their attainments? I answer, Persevere in your efforts, and when our too long neglected race, shall have become proportionally in and informed with the white community, prejudice will and must sink into insignificance and give place to liberality and impartiality.

In other words, African American families in 1827 were asking why they should send their children to free schools, when no good jobs awaited at the end. Why should they persevere, if there were nothing but fake promises of “liberality and impartiality” at the end? The writer hoped that prejudice would evaporate, but I’m guessing plenty of families were not so sanguine.

Moreover, they must have wondered why they should send their children to schools where the teachers often resorted to humiliating punishments, including hanging logs around the necks of children and shackling children together to march around the classroom. After all, those were the recommended punishments in the Lancasterian schools in America’s cities. As school reformer Joseph Lancaster admitted, when some people saw his schools in New York and Philadelphia, they protested that

the apparatus of logs, shackles, caravans, &c. were all implementations of slavery.

It’s not hard for me to imagine an African American family in 1827 wanting to avoid a school that punished children in the “apparatus” of slavery. Nevertheless, as the stories from Providence and elsewhere make abundantly clear, African American families have always made incredible sacrifices—and taken incredible risks—to provide schools for their children. They just don’t want to send their children to schools that humiliate their children for no good reason. They don’t want to send their children to schools that don’t prepare them for jobs at the end.

So…are there people who just don’t value education? Probably. There have got to be parents—rich and poor, black and white—who simply can’t be bothered to care too much about their children’s welfare. But it is not true and it never has been true that certain types of people–lower-income, non-white Americans–just don’t care. To the contrary, historically African-American communities have gone to great lengths to overcome legal and extralegal opposition to their schools.

From the Archives: The Bad Old Days of Educational Entrepreneurship

More proof, if more were needed, that today’s bold claims to “free” education from the cold dead hands of bureaucracy are not an innovation, but a step back into the ooze from which public schools evolved. As I argued recently in the pages of the Washington Post, Secretary Betsy Devos’s plans for public education mostly consist of returning schools to the bad old days of the early 1800s. In yesterday’s archive dig, I ran across a sad reminder: Entrepreneurship just doesn’t work when it comes to public education.arthur donaldson school announcementSAGLRROILYBYGTH need no reminder, but here’s a little historical background anyway: Before the mid-1800s, most towns and cities had a mish-mash of school options. In places such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, there were tax-funded schools that were free to attend.

In most towns and cities, there were church schools or entrepreneurial “dame” or “master” schools. The former usually charged some kind of tuition but they also usually raised money to pay for lower-income students. The latter were businesses run by a teacher. These teachers survived by attracting pupils and charging tuition. All in all, it was a fine system for people with money or lucky people without money, but it left a lot of people out.

In 1810, Arthur Donaldson hoped to fix the situation. He was a teacher in a Quaker/Friends-run school for African-American kids. He hoped to broaden the school options for low-income African-American kids by raising more funds from wealthier people to open new schools for students who couldn’t afford to pay tuition. As Donaldson advertised, he wanted

to build a School-house, to admit of two schools, for the accommodation of Children of Colour, males and females separate. And as soon as the income arising from said school will admit (or other means obtained) to procure a well qualified person, to assist him therein. He also has it in view, as the school increases, to reduce the price of tuition, so as to make it more easy to parents of children. . . . he solicits the aid of the Benevolent minded, in hopes that he will meet with encouragement in his undertaking; believing it will be a means of laying a foundation for that which may be of lasting benefit to this neglected class of the community; whose welfare he has sincerely at heart; and is disposed to devote his whole time and attention, without any view of any thing more to himself than a reasonable and moderate living.

Hooray for Donaldson, right? Sounds like good news for the lower-income African-American children of Philadelphia. The catch was, these schools never opened.

Eventually, in 1822, the emerging public-school system of Philadelphia opened a tuition-free school for African-American kids on Mary Street. In 1826 Philly opened a second, the “Gaskill St. School for Negro Girls,” and the Mary Street School became boys-only. In 1828 they added another segregated tuition-free African-American school on Lombard Street.

The take-away? Let’s assume Mr. Donaldson had a pure heart and good intentions. He was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends, and he already worked as a teacher in the tuition-charging church school for African-American kids, so he doesn’t seem like a bad guy. As he stipulated, let’s assume that he only wanted to make a “reasonable and moderate living.” He thought the market could support a school for African-American kids. He thought Philadelphia’s wealthy elites could be cajoled into coughing up some of their money to pay for it.

He was wrong. Philanthropy wasn’t enough. Good intentions weren’t enough. Vim, vigor, and smarts weren’t enough. When schools are left to follow market forces, only people with money benefit.

The Least Surprising School Research Ever

Are you sitting down? Because the results of some recent studies might shock you. As The Economist reported recently, it turns out that cutting school budgets…hurts student learning. And all joking aside, though the connection might be glaringly obvious, the details are pretty interesting and point us once again toward the most important school reform.economist test scores smaller

After the Great Recession of 2008, state governments slashed funding for school budgets. They had to. The impact of those cuts was not distributed equally to school districts, however. More affluent districts could support their schools, but districts with fewer financial resources couldn’t. Lower-income districts have traditionally relied more on state funding, so the cuts hurt them worse.

We know that test scores and other school numbers only tell part of the story, but in this case, that part is sad. Studies of the post-recession funding dip found that lower-income schools cut “core activities.” They saw a drop in reading and math test scores, as well as a drop in graduation rates. As one study found,

A 10% reduction in spending per-pupil in all four years of high school reduced the likelihood of a student graduating by 2.7 percentage points.

What’s the solution? For one thing, state support needs to return. By 2015, most states had not returned to pre-2008 school spending levels. A more comprehensive fix will be to eliminate the cruel educational gerrymander that determines school funding by zip code. Instead of fighting for more charter schools and voucher plans, we should put our energy into unifying city and suburban school districts, bringing together students of different backgrounds and leveling out our current senseless feast-or-famine funding scheme.

Sure, you say, but politically such “redistribution” schemes are a dead letter. No affluent suburban voter would support them, and without that support it’s a no-go. Maybe not. Recent polls in Massachusetts and across the South find that large majorities support overhauls of their states’ school-funding schemes. It’s time to stop fighting about charters and start pushing for real school-funding solutions.

Will THIS Make Colleges Think Twice?

It doesn’t matter how deep your pockets are. An $11,000,000 fine still hurts. I can’t help but wonder this morning if colleges will see Oberlin’s punishment as a wake-up call to rein in their activist students.oberlin protest real.jpg

Here’s what we know: A bakery across the street from Oberlin’s uber-liberal campus has just won a whopping $11 million judgment against the school. Back in 2016, three African-American Oberlin students stole from the bakery. The owner chased them down and they were caught. They admitted to the attempted crime and agreed that the incident was not racially inflected.

Before the students confessed, however, outraged Oberlin students took to the street. They chanted that the bakery was racist and waved signs and banners. According to Inside Higher Ed, the administration of the college assisted with the student protest, suspending business with the bakery, organizing protests, and providing materials such as gloves for the protesters.

In light of the facts of the case, the bakery successfully sued for libel. It convinced a state court that the protests

interfered with business relationships, inflicted emotional distress and libeled the owners.

Will this judgment make other college administrators think twice about supporting student protests? As we all know, no matter if a school is conservative, liberal, or other, no administrator is willing to risk legal liability. I can’t help but think that this case will make cautious university presidents reconsider their knee-jerk support for student activism.

From the Archives: Bad Students Are in the Eye of the Beholder

I wish these dispatches from the 1800s didn’t sound so depressingly contemporary. As I do my research into the roots of America’s public schools–like I’ve argued recently at WaPo and HNN–I keep hearing the same bad ideas brought up over and over, literally for centuries. As I found out today, the ugly politics of racism in America’s schools sometimes don’t seem to have changed all that much, either.

InkedAfr Observer quote 1_LI

From Freedom’s Journal (NY); reprinted in The African Observer (Phila.), June, 1827

I’m working these days down here in sunny Philadelphia, digging through the amazing collections of the Library Company and Historical Society. Today I came across lots of accounts of the Lancasterian public schools for African-American students in New York and Philly. I wish I could say I was surprised at one thing that jumped out at me.

Consider the report of Benjamin Bacon. Bacon was white, and he examined Philly’s African-American schools and reported back to the all-white Board of Education. Some of the schools were fine, Bacon reported, even great. One school offered a full hour of musical instruction after the regular school day and students were learning all sorts of academic and artistic stuff.

But some of the schools were terrible. The school on Oak Street met in a “dilapidated” building. It was so crowded that students

are obliged to crawl under, and others over the writing desks, to get to and from their places.

Bacon visited in the middle of February and the students were all freezing because all the windows were broken or missing. So…given all that, how did Bacon explain the poor academic performance of some students? He blamed “The irregular attendance of scholars,” which he thought

imposes extra labor upon teachers, prevents a thorough classification, and makes the recitations less spirited than they otherwise would be.

To be fair, Bacon excused some of the students’ irregularities as “unavoidable,” but he definitely did not blame the teachers, about whom he had this to say:

Of all men and women who labor for the good of others, none are more worthy of appreciation than the faithful teachers of our colored schools.

That wasn’t how everyone saw it. Two African-American school visitors had a very different diagnosis. They visited segregated public schools in New York and found an obvious culprit for poor student performance: unqualified teachers. As they wrote,

We suspect, it is unnecessary to mention, that much depends on the teacher, as well as the pupil. We are so skeptical, that we cannot believe, that almost any one is qualified to keep a school for our children. Enemies may declaim upon their dulness [sic] and stupidity; but we would respectfully inquire, have they not had dull and stupid instructers; [sic] who, if placed in any other than a coloured school, would hardly be considered as earning their salt: but we must be silent, as any one who possesses a few qualifications (unnecessary to be here named) is, in the general estimation fit to keep a school for us.

I wish I could say I was shocked that white and black observers came to such different conclusions based on similar evidence, but we all know the same kinds of things go on today. It is all too common for observers to blame students for their own crappy educational conditions.