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The Coercion-Free Way To Integrate Schools Involves Choice, Not Busing

Empowering parents to select children’s schools would help with desegregation while improving the quality of American education in the process.


California Sen. Kamala Harris’ attacks on former vice president Joe Biden during last Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate brought the issue of school busing back to the fore for the first time in decades. The issue’s reemergence has caused some Democratic candidates to embrace a return to busing tactics. But empowering parents—rather than judges or government bureaucrats—to select children’s schools would prove a far better solution to desegregating schools, and improving the quality of American education in the process.

For the uninitiated—a group that likely includes most Americans under age 50—the “busing” discussion in Thursday’s debate did not refer simply to the millions of American students who take a bus to school. Rather, Harris and Biden debated the policy of forcible busing as a desegregation strategy—transporting minority students to schools located in majority-white neighborhoods, and vice versa.

In the 1970s and ’80s, many districts implemented forcible busing regimes as a result of court rulings. Forcible busing prompted protests, most notably in Boston, for many reasons, including the logistical problems caused by sending students to schools miles away from their homes and neighborhoods.

School districts’ compliance with desegregation orders, and a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited the use of race as the determining factor in school assignments, led districts to move away from forced busing. But after Thursday night’s debate, some Democratic candidates said they supported a return to the practice.

In response to reporters’ questions, Harris’ campaign said she “supports desegregation” of schools. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed that “we’re seeing more and more schools which are being segregated,” that it “is something we have to deal with,” and that “busing is one tool” to do so. Likewise, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said that “every child should be able to go to a good public school. And as president, I will assure that. If it needs busing, it needs busing.”

As usual, the left sees a problem and prescribes more government as a solution. In this case, Harris, Sanders, and Gillibrand sound like they support forcibly reassigning students to other schools—regardless of those schools’ locations, or the wishes of the students and their parents—to meet Democrats’ embrace of identity politics.

But if Gillibrand truly wants students to have access to quality schools, she shouldn’t support more top-down government restrictions like forcible busing. Instead of empowering bureaucrats to exercise greater control of our educational system, she should empower parents to decide where their children will go to school, by supporting school choice. (Disclosure: While I serve as a paid consultant to school choice-supporting organizations, none reviewed or exercised editorial control over this article.)

As a conservative, I believe that states and local districts, not Washington, should make their own policy decisions about education, including school choice. But I have also seen how the federal government can sabotage local efforts to empower parents with more education options. I worked for Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, when the Obama administration’s Justice Department used a decades-old desegregation case to try to block a Louisiana school choice program in which 91 percent of participants came from racial minority groups.

I’ll say that again: The nation’s African-American president (Barack Obama) and first African-American attorney general (Eric Holder) cited segregation concerns to stop an opportunity scholarship program where more than nine in ten participants came from racial minority groups. Oh, and did I mention that both Obama and Holder sent their children to expensive private schools in Washington?

Parents don’t need more plans imposed on them by Washington bureaucrats, be they busing or otherwise, to gain access to better schools. The Democrat plans to use more government to “fix” problems that a broken educational system created epitomize Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom about the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

No matter their race or ethnicity, hard-working parents need the same types of choices Obama and Holder made for their children, but wanted to deny to struggling families in New Orleans and elsewhere. They need politicians to stop trying to “help” them and instead need those politicians to give them the tools to help themselves. They need—and they deserve—the power of school choice.