Busing to achieve racially balanced schools always had a split identity. The motives behind it may have been high-minded, but the effects, social and educational, were sometimes less than exalted.
The angry protests in South Boston are more than 20 years in the past. They remain, however, a troubling memory. Boston's School Committee recently voted to end the use of race as a factor in assigning students to schools. Late last week, a judge ended court-ordered busing in Charlotte, N.C., where the legal precedent for such programs was set in 1971. Court mandates and busing policies are being phased out in many other cities as well. Busing, clearly, is becoming history.
It's history, however, that deserves a hard, thoughtful look. Busing came on the heels of the great civil rights advances of the '60s. It drew on the momentum of court rulings that dismantled officially segregated public school systems in the South.
The proposition that racially separate schools could be "equal" had been rejected. De facto segregation in the North may not have been "official" - it resulted from residential patterns, not race-based laws - but a strong case was made that the schools it created were far from equal. At the same time the recognition was growing that racially mixed schools enhance education and encourage tolerance.
Standing in the path of the buses was the preference of most parents - of all races - for schools reasonably close to home. "Neighborhood schools" became a rallying cry.
Many hope that slogan will quickly be realized as busing orders are lifted. But things are not so simple. Residential trends, ethnic mixes, the building of new schools and the closing of old - all are factors affecting where a child goes to school, and with whom. Magnet and charter schools have sprung up, blurring neighborhood lines.
The desire for positive social change that helped fuel busing shouldn't flag. In the wake of busing, more effective ways must be found to boost the still-lagging educational attainments of many minority children.
The focus on good schools for all children must become sharper than ever.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society