I have opinions about busing

Hello, America. Bullock here with my annual-ish post to BB (Happy Birthday!) because the news cycle, for once, happens to align with something actually in my wheelhouse.

In this case, busing and school desegregation.

I teach high school in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Milwaukee has the distinction–no, not that, shame–of being one of America’s most segregated metro areas by race and by income. Its busing fights in the 1970s and 1980s were vicious and left lasting scars. Subsequent “white flight” to the suburbs of Milwaukee was massive.

Today, nearly every single student who attends any school in the city of Milwaukee–public or private, with rare exceptions–attends a school where a majority of the students look like them.

So, I have opinions.

1. Integrated Schools Should Be Our Aim

Nobody can dispute the many benefits that come with desegregation of schools, both by race and by income. (I would link, but you either already know this or you will dispute the facts as biased.) As both an educational policy and a moral imperative, integrated schools should be one of America’s priorities.

As an MPS teacher, I have often spent much of my work days as the only white person in the room. Indeed, I just finished a summer school session where I taught not a single white student, out of more than 40. On the other hand, my very first year of teaching at a high school in Waukesha County, I encountered no people of color at all. No students, no staff, no anybody. (Admittedly, this was more than 20 years ago, but I just checked the latest DPI report card and that school literally has one African American student enrolled right now. One.)

This is not the way the world should be working. This is not the way our schools should be working.

So please read the remainder of my opinions with this in mind.

2. Expecting Schools To Fix Society’s Problems Really Sucks Ass

One of the most consistent themes that I have stressed in nearly two decades of Arguing With People About Things On The Internet is that schools are seldom the cause of problems, but rather the place where problems become manifest.

For example, sure, I have often been the only white person in a classroom. This is bad. But I go out to restaurants or coffee joints or the got-danged farmers market in my City of Milwaukee neighborhood and find that, like the high school I used to teach in, there are only white people around. (But Jay, you say, the farmers market! That’s the natural habitat of urban wypipo! Shut up, I say, you’re missing the point.) Yet no one ever calls for desegregating Starbucks. Anymore–I mean, the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins were a real thing 65 years ago.

People expect schools to fix everything. Name any other of society’s ills: Crippling intergenerational poverty? Education’s the only way to stop being poor! The death of the manufacturing economy? Teach them kids to code! Crime and trauma in city neighborhoods the gentrifiers haven’t made it to yet? Better put cops in schools! Yes, cops. Why do you need more psychologists?

It sucks. I got into this game because I love writing and I want my students to love writing too and to be good at it when they leave my care. I should not be tasked with solving someone else’s problem.

And yet I am: I mentioned DPI report cards earlier; take a look and note that schools and districts are dinged for things like poor student attendance, graduates who need more than four years of high school to be ready for the workforce, big gaps between white-black achievement and rich-poor achievement and native speakers-English language learners achievement and regular education-special education achievement. All of these are affected most not by the relatively few hours a year students spend in schools but by all the time they spend living in our fucked-up post-capitalist American system of IGOTMINEYOUGOTOHELL.

It is no fun. It is dispiriting. And to be reminded of last millennium’s busing fight is to be reminded that no one will do a damned thing to change the conditions outside of school that result in segregation and instead blame schools, somehow, for the monochromatic racial makeup of our classrooms.

3. But Schools Are Easier To Control Than Society As A Whole, I Guess

It has long been clear that the single greatest predictor of K-12 educational success is ZIP code. This has more to do, explicitly, with income and wealth than with race (go play with these charts, for example), though when we talk about income and wealth in the US we do, of course, also talk about race.

To get to the optimal outcome of schools that are fully integrated by race and income, we need to have cities and towns and neighborhoods that are fully integrated by race and income. Full stop.

But lawmakers have easy tools to control what happens in schools–they hold the purse-strings; state constitutions give state legislators wide latitude to set school policy; federal dollars to school districts–especially poor districts through Title I–give the feds a lot of leverage over schools.

No such easy leverage or constitutional authority exists to create full integration in Americans’ daily lives. In fact, when lawmakers have tried to take even such anodyne measures as mandating a certain level of affordable housing in any new development, people lose their shit. (And by people, I mean white people, almost exclusively.) Pick a city. Google the name of that city and the words affordable housing fight. See what you get. It’s remarkably consistent.

Busing in the 1970s and 1980s was different than the challenges we face today. In Milwaukee, in particular, the pre-white flight city schools did often deliberately organize by race and had to be ordered not to do so. Today, though city schools look and feel organized by race, it is as much more organic–there simply aren’t enough white students in the city to balance the non-white student population. Well, with one big caveat–Wisconsin’s liberal open-enrollment policies have some effect, allowing many white students to attend schools outside of the city. In 2017-18, the last year with data available, nearly 6,000 city students attended a school outside of the city, though DPI does not report the race or income of these students.

4. I Don’t Have The Answer, And Anyone Who Says They Do Is Probably Lying

If we could start over, like literally reset America to zero and run the simulation a second time, we could do better. No slavery, for example. No redlining from the beginning. No Jim Crow, no segregated facilities, no electing white supremacists to the presidency. Maybe then we’d have naturally integrated schools and racial harmony. Maybe.

But unfucking our current fubarred America is going to be hard and painful. Reparations, for example, would help. Changes to policy, like affordable housing rules and better social support systems and less-predatory policing and radical changes to the tax code to privilege work over wealth, would move the needle. Better funding for poor urban and rural districts, to close the resource gap, would be a boon to our underserved and underachieving schools.

Look, I get that someone of Joe Biden’s or Bernie Sanders’ age (seriously, enough with the old white dudes running for president) is old enough to be on the record way back when, and there’s probably got to be an accounting for whatever blah blah.

But if school desegregation is going to be an issue today, now, in 2019, I need to know that it isn’t going to be a rehash of busing. Busing isn’t the answer. Saying simply “we can put kids on a bus to someplace else” is weak-tea horseshit and not worth the carbon dioxide expended to move the vocal cords enough to say it. Maybe some people are worried that Democrats are careering too far left and maybe those people aren’t willing to consider bolder swings for farther and better fences than busing or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

But a Democrat who takes that swing is a Democrat I can consider voting for.


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6 thoughts on “I have opinions about busing

  1. the public school system is getting worse and worse.
    Wisconsin used to have a good public school system and now it is quite frankly terrible.
    43% of the kids in Wisconsin can read at grade level and math is no better.
    Florida has 80% of their kids reading at grade level.
    Please no excuse for failure. Most states are as bad if not worse than Wisconsin. We spend more than most states so we don’t have any excuses.

    1. Hi, Rob. Just to correct you here–Wisconsin and Florida use different “cut scores” and different exams to determine student achievement. On the Wisconsin Forward exam, it is true that the number of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” is in the mid-40%s. However, on the Forward “basic” is the measure that is closer to grade level.

      An apples-to-apples comparison of Wisconsin and Florida requires you to look at the NAEP, where the two states actually show little difference in performance.

    2. Oh, also, Wisconsin school spending is ranked 25th of 51 (states + DC), so it’s not true that we spend more than most states.

      1. Not true? A rank of 25 out of 50 would mean that 25 states spend less and 24 spend more. Since 25 is greater than 24, even for very large values of 24, doesn’t that make Rob’s statement true?

  2. Busing was great disaster cost billions did nothing except move white families out of ares where their kids had to be bused. did nothing for integration. Make freedom our goal.

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