A line of San Diego Unified school buses / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

To those of us who do not remember the politics of the 1970s and ‘80s, the idea of mixing up student populations by busing kids around town sounds like just another snoozer of a school board debate.

To the people of Boston and other American cities who do remember, it sounds like Molotov cocktails and riots in the street.

Skipping over the irony of a great northern city’s violent opposition to integration, busing is one of the most essential tests of the American promise: Can we create a more equal, level playing field, where a child’s skin color and ZIP code are not the primary determiners their future?

Taking for granted that capitalism on its own will not achieve this – which puts me out of step with probably more than a few people – and in fact mostly achieves the opposite, the project requires some social engineering. Busing is exactly that and, in theory at least, it moves toward equality on two levels.

One: It does not allow black and brown students to be packed into separate schools, away from their white peers – as is the case in much of California and the rest of the country today. Two: It can break up high-poverty schools, which in turn helps close the achievement gap. High-poverty schools are deeply challenging environments, where it is hard for students to learn and teachers to teach. But if poverty is spread more equally throughout a city’s schools, via the mechanism of busing, poor students (who are disproportionately black and brown) get a better education, research shows.

And sorry to belabor the whole American Dream point here, but if black, brown and poor students are allowed to flourish in school just like their white, affluent peers then America will have moved a whole lot closer than it ever has to realizing the promise of giving everyone an equal shot at success.

And yet busing is extremely out of vogue. That’s because it sits at exactly the place where the rubber of white progressives meets the road. In other words: Equality is great until my child has to be bused to the other side of town, when I paid good, hard-earned, American dollars to live where there are good schools.

I’ve seen this in practice. Raleigh, North Carolina, where I first covered education, had a much-lauded busing policy up until around 2008. That policy came to a loud and boisterous end when enough suburban white folks – many of them otherwise liberal – got organized, ousted the school board and did away with the policy. That’s a recent example. But white liberals all over the country have been shouting down busing for decades.

And let’s be clear: Some black people didn’t like busing either. Having a child travel long distances just to get a decent education is a solution, but not an ideal solution.

Modern day experiments in busing are anything but widespread. They usually center on maintaining a strict level of diversity (call it a quota) in each school that closely mirrors the city’s diversity. Most contemporary efforts have focused on diversity by socioeconomic level, instead of race. A small handful of schools in New York have set aside seats for students in poorer areas of town and provided free busing.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses a citywide “controlled-choice” plan, which requires each school to come within range of the city’s diversity, but also allows parents to exert some choice in which school their child attends. That system “merges market-based choice and forced school desegregation” as my good friend Matt Collette explained for Slate a few years ago.

In San Diego Unified School District, 59 percent of students live near or below the poverty line, as defined by who receives free and reduced-price lunch. And yet we have many schools with more than 90 percent poverty, where it is extremely difficult for a child to get a good education. A diversity policy might mandate that all schools stay within 10 points of that 59 percent line. Mixing by class would also mix students, in a de-facto way, by race.

“If we could wave a magic wand and have a certain level of student demographics and also a certain level of parent engagement – which is really important – at each school in San Diego, we probably would,” Richard Barrera, a board trustee, told me.

Barrera said there is a world in which he would support busing in San Diego. But instead of focusing on desegregation efforts, Barrera and the board have focused on the goal of creating a quality school in every neighborhood. That is one way to tackle inequality, but the goal has not come to fruition – nine traditional public schools in the district are on a list of worst-performing schools in the state and many schools are “very isolated, very segregated,” Barrera admits.

But Barrera insists there has been some movement. San Diego Unified allows parents to submit school choice applications for their child to attend any school in the district. Fewer parents are submitting choice applications than in previous years, which shows more people are satisfied with their neighborhood school, Barrera said.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden opened a window onto America’s troubled past and present when they had a heated discussion about busing at a recent debate. It turns out, neither of them supports federally mandated busing – even though Harris slammed Biden for holding the same view in the ‘70s and ‘80s. While agreeing with Biden that busing shouldn’t be mandated, she did say it could be an important tool for desegregation. She’s right. The question is whether Harris or anyone else has the political courage to even consider reaching for that tool when white suburban voters are on the line.

What I’m Reading

Only one today, but it’s a gem from the Los Angeles Times: A retired teacher has been following a colony of seahorses in Long Beach for years and he even built them an underwater home.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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