Forced Busing: Mandate of Musical Chairs

If you read Bob Herbert’s Separate but Unequal article in the New York Times yesterday it’s pretty clear that he favors the forced busing model so many schools (e.g., Detroit, Boston, Charlotte) used throughout the 80s and 90s to comply with integration initiatives. Some were successful. Some were not.

I disagree with forced busing, but Herbert makes some good points. All humans tend to adapt to their surroundings, and logically, it’s much more desirable to adapt to a wealthy, successful environment than a poor unsafe one. Also, if a bunch of kids are grouped together with the common denominator of poverty, money is unlikely to materialize. Most people would agree with that.

Herbert’s article is about race rather than income, although he treats the two almost interchangeably. He argues that poor, black children should have the same opportunities as their rich, white counterparts. Currently, these children can only get an education in poor, unsafe areas, where it is unlikely they will be encouraged to excel. So why not put them in a setting where they are likely to thrive?

In theory, this sounds like a good plan, but it’s ridiculous to ignore the two gaping holes in this story. The first problem is that the logic is flawed. Race and income level are not interchangeable. Most people (of all races) are poor, or at best, lower middle class. Wealthy people are few and far between these days. But in the tiny elite club of those who do have money, you’ll find not only blacks and whites, but many Arabs, and also a fair number of Asians and Indians (no, probably not American Indians). But the writer’s assumption that white = rich can easily be proven false.

The second problem is that the other side of the story is swept under the rug and ignored. Most schools operate at or beyond their budget: they have full classrooms and no extra money. That means for every student you bus in, another is bused out to the same schools the author claims are far below par in terms of quality. What makes the inner city schools acceptable for the suburban kids but not the inner-city kids?

In a related statement, Herbert cites improved test scores from the kids who get bused out to the suburbs. (In fact, this hasn’t been proved conclusively one way or another) If you go with this assumption, though, the argument is that the poor environment is responsible for failing grades. Once children are removed from the environment, they do better. If this is true, how can he justify busing children out of a successful environment and into a poor one?

It is a complex problem, and I wish I knew the answer. I’m sure there is one. One thing is clear though, and that is after more than twenty years, the Musical Chairs Experiment has failed to pay off. At best, it’s a trade-off where one child benefits at the expense of another. At worst, it means ALL the kids (black, white, poor, rich, bright, and slow) are simply riding the bus for an extra hour or two every day, which ironically must cut into their homework time.

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