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School Desegregation

The Busing Debate

Busing is a plan for promoting school desegregation, by which minority students are transported to largely white schools and white students are brought to largely minority schools. It is intended to safeguard the CIVIL RIGHTS of students and to provide equal opportunity in public education. Busing is also an example of affirmative action—that is, the attempt to undo or compensate for the effects of past discrimination. Such action is sometimes called compensatory justice.

Busing was first enacted as part of school desegregation programs in response to federal court decisions establishing that racial SEGREGATION of public schools violates the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution. In Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, 88 S. Ct. 1689, 20 L. Ed. 2d 716 (1968), and SWANN V. CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG BOARD OF EDUCATION, 402 U.S. 1, 91 S. Ct. 1267, 28 L. Ed. 2d 554 (1971), the Supreme Court established that federal courts could require school districts to implement busing programs as a means of achieving racial INTEGRATION of public schools.

However, busing was nothing new in U.S. education. Even before these decisions, nearly 40 percent of the nation's schoolchildren were bused to school. And before 1954, when the Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, children were often bused to segregated schools that were beyond walking distance from their homes.

With the Supreme Court decisions in Green and Swann, busing became one of the most controversial topics in U.S. law and politics, particularly in the 1970s. Although the zeal for busing as a remedy for past racial injustice had waned greatly by the 1990s, busing remained a feature—if many times a limited one—of most school desegregation programs and continued to inspire heated debate.

Those who are in favor of busing claim, as did the Supreme Court in Green and Swann, that racial integration in and of itself is a worthy social goal and that busing is an effective means of achieving that goal in public education. Supporters point to the harmful legacy of segregation in education. Before Brown, African-American children were schooled in separate facilities that were usually inferior to the facilities used by whites, despite official claims that they were equal. Such segregation worked to keep African Americans at a disadvantage in relation to whites. It instilled feelings of inferiority in African–American children and seriously diminished their educational achievement and opportunities.

Supporters of busing also often claim that de facto (actual) segregation exists even decades after the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT and the striking down of racial segregation laws, which occurred in the 1960s. A largely white, wealthy upper class and a largely minority, poor under-class, they argue, are transported, employed, housed, and educated in different settings. Often wealthy people live in the suburbs, and the poor live in the cities. Growing up in their separate neighborhoods, children from higher socioeconomic levels thus have many advantages that poorer children do not: more space at home, better nutrition and HEALTH CARE, greater cultural and intellectual stimulation, and friends and acquaintances with higher social status providing better job and career prospects. Some even compare the isolation of impoverished minorities in the United States' inner cities with that of impoverished blacks under South Africa's former apartheid system.

Advocates of desegregation through busing assert that these existing inequalities must not become greater and that desegregation in education will go a long way toward ending them and creating a more just society. They also point out that U.S. education has historically worked to ensure a society in which class hierarchy is minimized and social mobility—both upward and downward—is maximized. Busing, they argue, will therefore help avoid the creation of a permanent underclass in the United States.

Supporters of busing also maintain that it is an affordable way to achieve school desegregation. While admitting that the initial start-up costs of a busing program can be large, they point to statistics that indicate the operating costs of compulsory busing are generally less than five percent of a school district's entire budget.

Those who oppose busing make a variety of different points against it, although they do not necessarily oppose integration itself. Opponents claim that busing serves as a distraction from more important educational goals such as quality of instruction. Busing, they hold, too easily becomes a case of form over substance, in which the form of racial integration of education becomes of greater value than the substance of what is actually taught in schools. Critics of busing would rather focus on the environment in a school and in its classrooms than on achieving a particular number of each race in a school. Justice LEWIS F. POWELL JR. echoed these sentiments in an opinion to a school desegregation case, Keyes v. Denver School District, 413 U.S. 189, 93 S. Ct. 2686, 37 L. Ed. 2d 548 (1973). In Keyes, he wrote that in an era of declining student achievement, it is wrong to turn the attention of communities "from the paramount goal of quality in education to a perennially divisive debate over who is to be transported where."

Critics also claim that busing causes white flight—where whites move their children from integrated public schools to private and suburban schools that are largely white—which results in an even greater disparity between white and black, rich and poor. According to this scenario, busing only exacerbates the current situation, making public schools and cities even more the exclusive province of the poor.

Some noted experts on the issue of busing have concluded that although they favor a society that is racially integrated, the social costs of busing and the resulting white flight are too high. Others have sought a middle ground on the issue by arguing that judges should choose carefully the districts in which they decide to implement busing. For example, they claim that white flight is more likely to occur in communities and schools where whites form a small minority, and that as a result, busing has higher social costs in such districts.

Another prominent complaint in the anti-busing opinion is that court-ordered busing programs represent an abuse of judicial power. According to this view, busing is an example of undesirable judicial activism. The large-scale social changes caused by transporting thousands of children many miles each day should be imposed only by an elected body of representatives such as a state legislature or Congress. Moreover, adherents of this view argue that supervising school desegregation programs only bogs down the courts and takes time away from other pressing legal matters.

Critics of busing also point out that many times, the same court that requires busing does not provide guidance as to funding it, thereby creating financial headaches for school districts. Related to this issue is the claim that busing is too costly, especially when school districts are forced to purchase new buses in order to start a busing program. In financially strapped school districts, spending on busing sometimes takes away funding for other educational priorities.

Some of those who oppose busing favor racial desegregation but do not view busing as a good way to achieve that goal. Instead, they support a gradualist approach to social reform. According to the gradualist view, it will take generations to achieve the goal of racial desegregation in education and in society as a whole. Busing only interferes with the overall goal of integration, because of the sudden and disruptive changes—including white flight—that it imposes on society.

Others oppose busing on the ground that neighborhood schools are the best way to educate children. In this camp are both those in favor of racial integration in education and those against it. Neighborhood schools, it is argued, allow parents to have a greater influence on their child's education by making it easier, for example, to visit the school and speak with a teacher. Such schools also give children a sense of identity and instill pride in their community. Busing children to a school across town, they argue, will not inspire pride in their school. Advocates of neighborhood schools also point to statistics that indicate that bused students are more alienated from their school and thus experience greater problems, including poorer academic performance and increased delinquency.

An even more fundamental question related to busing is whether racial integration is in itself a valuable goal for public schools. Those who take opposite sides on this question marshal different sociological evidence. In the 1950s and 1960s the Supreme Court was influenced by the "contact" theory of racial integration. According to this theory, the better one knows those of another race, the more one is able to get along with them. Sociologists reasoned, therefore, that integrated schools would increase understanding between the races and lower racial tensions.

In the same years, many studies claimed to show that racial integration would boost the self-esteem, academic achievement, and ultimately opportunities and choices of members of minorities. For example, a well-known report issued by sociologist James S. Coleman in 1966, Equality of Educational Opportunity, concluded that minority children improve their academic performance when they attend classes where middle-class white pupils are the majority. Coleman's report also claimed that the most important indicator of the academic performance of minority and lower-class students is the educational level of their classmates. The report was seized upon by many as a reason to institute court-imposed busing plans for school districts.

By the 1970s and later, other sociologists challenged the liberal theories that school desegregation would lead to greater racial harmony and improved academic performance by African Americans. Coleman, too, became more skeptical about busing and argued that voluntary programs were more effective than government-imposed plans in achieving school desegregation. Others went so far as to claim that integration only increases hostility and tensions between the races. African–American students who are bused, they argued, experience a decline in their educational achievement in school. Some studies have in fact shown that students who are bused grow more rather than less hostile toward the other race or races. In addition, some studies have indicated that in many schools where the desired percentages of races have been achieved through busing, students interact largely with those of their own race and thus segregation within the school prevents true desegregation.

By 2003 the anti-busing viewpoint appeared to have prevailed. During the 1990s federal courts released many school districts from supervision by declaring these districts free of the taint of state-imposed segregation. The 1999 release of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district from court supervision was a symbolic moment, marking the end of an almost 30 year experiment in which the courts used busing to attempt the desegregation of public schools. That same year the Boston public schools, which had endured years of conflict over busing, ended race-based admissions and its busing program. Even cities such as Seattle, which voluntarily adopted a busing program in the 1970s, abandoned the practice in 1999.


"Judge Orders End to Busing in N.C. School District." 1999. Minneapolis Star Tribune (September 11).

Kluger, Richard. 1974. Simple Justice. New York: Knopf.


Civil Rights Movement.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of StateSchool Desegregation - 1954–1970: School Desegregation After Brown, The 1970s: Swann And Busing, The Busing Debate