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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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Have you ever wondered how conservative Christians think about porn? I haven’t really, but I read about it this week with a lot of interest. That story and more made our weekly review of ILYBYGTH-themed news ‘n’ views:

Porn and the evangelical community: Samuel Perry talks about his new book Addicted to Lust, at NY.

What I found is that, whatever we think pornography is doing, those effects tend to be amplified when we’re talking about conservative Protestants. It seems to be uniquely harmful to conservative Protestants’ mental health, their sense of self, their own identities—certainly their intimate relationships—in ways that don’t tend to be as harmful for people who don’t have that kind of moral problem with it. . . .

But for women, if they are lusting over things visually—if they are looking at things like pornography and masturbating to them or getting turned on—they really feel like an extreme pervert. They experience what I would call a double shame. They are violating their own sexuality in a way that God doesn’t want. So they’re sinning, but they’re also sinning like a man. And so they feel trapped.

In my neighborhood, a group of kids just attacked an elderly man, at BJS.

The end of an era: Moody Bible Institute shuts down its student newspaper, at RNS.

Ew: looks like Trump’s “fixer” fixed some photos for Jerry Falwell Jr., Reuters reports.

Strikes at Chicago charters win big concessions, at Chalkbeat.

chicago charter protestTraining kids as first responders: Should we have ‘active-shooter’ drills in schools? This mom says no.

Losing our ability to feel shame, at FPR.

It doesn’t take a great act of the imagination to apply the rebuke to those of us today who enjoy watching the train-wreck conversations that often accompany the comments sections of various online media outlets—for, as Dante well knew, there is an immense and indecent pleasure in watching other people, especially people whom we instinctively feel ourselves better than, hate one another.

More from Senator Warren on college-debt forgiveness—will a racial angle win more votes? At IHE.

And (a little) more about Senator Harris’s edu-funding plan at The Atlantic.

“It is completely upside down that we currently have a system where the funding of a school district is based on the tax base of that community,” the Democratic hopeful vying to run against President Donald Trump in 2020 said. The line met with approving head nods and a chorus of agreement. “It’s just basic math,” she continued, on a roll. “The community that has the lowest tax base is going to receive the fewest resources, and by the way probably [has] the highest need.”

Pandering? Or Progress?

What do you think? Is Senator Harris’s new plan to raise teacher pay a real winner? Will it improve public schooling? Or is it just an election-season stunt, a way to gain attention without really solving any problems?

Kamala Harris

A winner?

Here’s what we know: In a speech at Texas Southern University, the Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful outlined a plan to increase pay for public-school teachers. In brief, Senator Harris is pledging $315 billion to raise teacher pay an average of ten percent. Here’s how NBC described the plan:

According to the Harris campaign, the goal is to eventually increase teacher pay by an average of $13,500 per person, putting it in line with typical salaries for other employees with college degrees. Campaign materials pointed to research by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute that found teachers make 11 percent less than college-educated workers on average in combined salary and benefits.

Under the California senator’s plan, the federal government would finance 10 percent of the total pay increase for the first year and then pay out 3 dollars to states for every 1 dollar they put into additional salaries.

It would commit additional funds to further increase salaries for teachers in highest-need schools along with a “multi-billion dollar investment” in career development for educators. Half of it would go toward teachers studying at historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions with predominantly minority students.

In a sense, Harris’s plan is merely a continuation of a Democratic Party tradition. In the 2016 campaign, Comrade Sanders liked to call vaguely for better pay for public-school teachers. As Sanders liked to say back then,

the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.

But Sanders didn’t offer the kind of detail that Harris has laid out this year. Clearly, the echoes of teacher strikes over the past two years have changed the political landscape of progressive politics.

Conservatives are likely to see this proposal as dangerous and extreme. As ed commentator Rick Hess told Politico, it sounds like more of a fantasy for the primary season than a real plan for the Oval Office. As Hess put it,

I don’t know that it’s being proposed as actionable legislation so much as a marker. . . . Republicans, in particular, are nervous about once you open that barn door, just how involved Washington winds up getting in local education decisions and deciding who gets hired, how they get compensated.

And progressives are not falling over themselves to celebrate, either. As my favorite progressive-ed observer noted, Harris’s plan has some glaring problems. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene tweeted,

If a Dem wants to score points with teachers, pledge to kill test-driven faux accountability. Pledge to champion public ed over privatization. Pledge to put actual educators in charge of Ed Department. Get the federal government out of teachers’ way. And don’t make teachers have to negotiate with DC for their next raise.

All good points, but I can’t help but feel optimistic when I see that teacher-pay is at least being discussed in more depth and detail this campaign season. Like they say, “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.”