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It was 1967. Race riots broke out from Detroit to D.C. The Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage. And a group of parents sued San Diego Unified, arguing its schools were segregated.

The case became known as “Carlin,” after a little girl named in the suit. A decade after the suit was filed, the courts ultimately found that nearly two dozen schools were racially isolated and ordered the school district to come up with plans to alleviate it. Busing grew from there to move kids across the city.

Fast forward to 2011. Hoping to save more teacher jobs, the San Diego Unified school board is talking about halting integration busing in the massive school district. Yet under an old court order that stems from the Carlin case, San Diego Unified is still supposed to integrate its schools.

Now the question is whether the vast city can desegregate with far fewer yellow buses to ferry kids across town. Decades after busing began, the achievement gap remains a constant issue for schools.

But some educators and parents fear if busing is stripped back, school inequities and divisions will only deepen. While San Diego Unified has other programs that aim to promote racial harmony and boost the achievement of African-American and Latino students, busing has been the muscle behind integration.

“It’s just a matter of time before Carlin 2.0,” said Tina Chin, program administrator for a Balboa Park program on culture that is being eliminated.

After the Carlin case, the school district began running buses from south to north to voluntarily bring children of color into mostly white schools. It also started up magnet schools with unique themes to draw children south from all over the school district. The whole plan was optional, not mandatory.

San Diego Unified now has flexibility to figure out how to do so on its own under a second legal order. For instance, the school system later shifted away from using race to decide busing for integration and magnet schools, using neighborhoods instead. Families in Barrio Logan, for instance, can opt for buses up to Ocean Beach or Clairemont Mesa or Point Loma.

There’s one big thing the court order doesn’t say: That San Diego Unified has to use busing to desegregate. Transportation must still be provided to students with disabilities to get to special programs. And under No Child Left Behind, students can choose to be bused out of faltering schools.

But magnet and integration busing can be eliminated — and that could save $3.1 million as schools face an estimated $114 million deficit.

“Every dollar we use on transportation is a dollar we can’t use to restore a teacher or a nurse or a counselor,” said school board member Scott Barnett.

That resonates with parents who believe that integration or no integration, busing hasn’t solved academic inequities.

“I’d rather see that money be spent on doing something — learning for the kids — than shuffling kids all over the city,” said Diane Masser-Frye, a mother at Spreckels Elementary in University City.

Parents who plead for busing say ending it may be legal, but it won’t work. Without busing, kids can only get across town if their families can figure out another way to get there. And that could be impossible for kids whose parents lack time or money to drive them.

“If you have a car and you have the time, then you can easily say, ‘Well, I want my kid to go to Scripps Ranch,’” said Barbara Flannery, who sends one of her children to a magnet. “Even a bus pass costs $20. If you’re so poor that you can’t make ends meet, where are you going to come up with the money?”

University of California, San Diego economist Julian Betts and other researchers discovered in 2006 that magnet and integration busing made schools more diverse. Yet programs that let parents choose any school, but left it up to them to get their kids there, actually segregated them more.

“I consider this a tremendous blunder,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Transportation is being treated as a luxury — whereas it’s really about whether kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods should have an opportunity.”

Even with busing, school integration is incomplete. While busing has sprinkled children of color into schools in mostly white neighborhoods, it has left behind schools that are still isolated by race, class and language in poorer areas — including some of the same schools once pinpointed for desegregation. And some schools are actually more segregated than the neighborhoods they’re in, often because white families are opting out of their neighborhood school, with busing or without it.

Budget cuts and shifting attitudes about the need for integration have spurred school systems all over the country to cut busing, sometimes upsetting civil rights groups. But in San Diego, many African-American and Latino leaders have been less enamored with busing in the first place, seeing it as a drain on schools in poorer neighborhoods that are still segregated anyway.

The only black member of the school board, Shelia Jackson, voted along with board members Barnett and John Lee Evans to ask the district to draw up the plan that would strip back busing over two years.

“The mindset used to be, ‘We’ll send our kids to where the best of the best is, so they get a greater chance for success,’” said Pat Washington, community outreach chair for the local chapter of the NAACP. “Then you don’t end up improving the schools that need it the most.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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