Bailing Out on Busing: Why Maryland Should Reject the P.G. Plan

There can scarcely be a soul in Maryland convinced by Governor Parris N. Glendening’s (D) rationale for his plan to pump $250 million or so of state money into the Prince George’s County school system over the next five years. The funds will supposedly be used for any new school construction required if the school-busing order imposed on the county 25 years ago is lifted this fall. P.G. was one of only three political subdivisions to have voted for Mr. Glendening during the 1994 gubernatorial election.

It occurs to us that busing either is or is not (a) desirable and/or (b) possible. But neither (a) nor (b) gives reason to suppose that money is a logical substitute. It is hardly as though the P.G. school district is strapped for cash. Its 1995-96 rate of per-pupil spending ($6,272) was only topped by six of 24 school districts in the state. And the demise of busing in P.G. will free up considerable local funds for spending in the district’s public schools. Though P.G. figures were not available to the Calvert Institute at the press time, the example of Indianapolis is useful. In 1992, Indianapolis spent $23.7 million on transportation, in large part for integration purposes. From 1980-1992, Indiana’s average busing costs rose 206 percent. The city’s court-ordered busing expenses rose 718 percent. Absent the busing order, much of this could have been directed toward real education spending. P.G. likely will save considerable money when busing ends.

The county’s taxpayers have repeatedly opted to hold down county expenditure on education through a cap on property taxes. If P.G. residents choose to spend more on their public schools, let them. But it is a profound injustice to expect state taxpayers to do what P.G. county taxpayers will not. It sets a bad precedent, giving counties the indication that the state will pay for their unpopular spending proposals. The story of busing in America has been a sad one from the start, in Prince George’s as elsewhere. This should not be compounded by having Maryland taxpayers foot the bill for what P.G. countians won’t .

Leaving aside the merits of the governor’s spending plan, however, it is instructive to examine the legacy of busing itself, in P.G. and elsewhere. Defenders of America’s previous and thoroughly unsavory divided education system are few and far between today, though this does not mean that conservatives should be insensitive to the past practices. On the other hand, nor does it mean that the country should be blind to the absurdities brought about by busing.

A History of Inconsistency

Always controversial, and contrary to popular opinion, busing was not instituted directly as a result of the famous 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans. (347 U.S. 483). The court’s journey from Brown to busing was a long and inconsistent one.

Though many people do not realize it, Brown did not even dictate the integration of schools. It merely required the cessation of legally mandated (de jure) segregation. That positive steps toward integration be taken was not required by the court until 1968, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Va. (389 U.S. 1003). Even this did not indicate when such positive action should occur. The 1969 case, Alexander v. Holmes (396 U.S. 19), stipulated that jurisdictions must take immediate action to integrate schools. Still there was no mention of transporting students from school to school to achieve this. A step toward this was taken in 1971, when the case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, N.C. (402 U.S. 1), affirmed a federal lower-court decision that busing could be used to integrate school districts where previous de jure segregation had left a pattern of one-race schools. The impact of this decision was largely restricted to the South; it had little impact in the North, where residential segregation had not been mandated by law, instead resulting from residential custom. It was not until 1973, Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colo. (413 U.S. 189), that busing was given the judicial green light as a remedy for all forms of non-integrated education, be it based on legal or residential segregation.

By this time, white liberal enthusiasm was waning. Green and Swann had been perfectly acceptable in the North, as their impact was almost nonexistent above the Mason-Dixon Line. Keyes and contemporary federal legislation were a different matter, however. Conservatives made much of this apparent hypocrisy. With relish, white southerners noted that in 1970 northern Democrats in the Senate voted 24-to-9 against a rider to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Amendments that would have required the equal enforcement of congressional desegregation policies for northern residential segregation as well as southern legal segregation. In 1974, Marylander J. Glenn Beall (R) introduced in the Senate an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Extension prohibiting busing orders from taking effect during the school year. Northern Democrats voted for the prohibition 24-to-16. (By the North, we refer to all states other than the ex-Confederacy and the border states.)

Local white ethnics noted that busing in Massachusetts – that paragon of liberal states – was restricted to black and white working-class areas of Boston and that no middle-class suburban school districts opted to participate in a voluntary metro-area busing program sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. Overseeing the downtown busing scheme, federal district Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., who did not live in the city, was derided by blue-collar Boston Irish as an uppity “two-toilet Irishman” who had forgotten his roots.

In addition to hypocrisy, the white establishment was guilty of inconsistency, starting with the Supreme Court itself. Though Swann had permitted busing to remedy past practices of legal segregation, a 1980 case, Armor v. Nix (446 U.S. 931), let stand a lower court decision overruling a proposed busing plan for Atlanta very similar to the one permitted for Charlotte in the Swann case.

The ostensible purpose of integration was to put to rest any notion that “separate” could be “equal,” a concept introduced in 1896 with the discredited Plessy v. Ferguson case (163 U.S. 537). Given the furious pace with which school districts were induced to devise busing plans, the casual observer might have been tempted to think that either separate was or was not equal, as a legal principal, with no gray areas in between. He would have been wrong. When it suited the courts, segregation was permitted. In the mid-1970s, federal district Judge William M. Taylor, Jr. exempted 28 black Dallas schools from the city’s busing plans on the grounds of transportation difficulties. Instead, the city was ordered to increase spending on these schools, leading critics to assert that Taylor was prepared to allow separate to be equal as long as enough money changed hands.

Busing almost invariably involved the transportation of black students to white schools, not the reverse. Usually, the proportion sought for schools was 80 percent white and 20 percent African-American. The unspoken assumption was that this was black enough to be called integrated but not so black as to frighten off whites.

Given a history of desegregation whose only consistency was its inconsistency and hypocrisy, by the early 1980s, some blacks were questioning the value of busing. Columnist William Raspberry, hardly a conservative, opined that “what black children have needed all along is quality education, and that…can be had in black schools as well as integrated ones.”

Failed Objectives

The truth was, it was also becoming apparent that quality education for blacks would have to be available in mostly black schools – because truly integrated schools, even 30 years after Brown, were rare. Despite the carefully conceived 80/20 ratio, white flight was the order of the day. In 1954, Wilmington, Delaware’s public schools had been 72.9 percent white; by 1976, the figure was just 9.7 percent. (Wilmington has only recently been released from its integration order.) In Baltimore City, white enrollment dropped from 50 percent of the total to just 33 percent from 1958 through 1978. The pattern in P.G. was the same. Whites made up 78 percent of students in 1972; now they make up only 20 percent. Obviously the supposedly optimum 80/20 ratio is mathematically unattainable. Busing, quite clearly, is no longer feasible in P.G. The only remaining question is, why should state taxpayers be asked to bail out the county?

Posted in: Education, News Series