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The Washington Post Magazine Online

Today's Discussion: The End of Busing

with Liza Mundy

Monday, January 31, 2000
1p.m. EST

Twenty-seven years ago, when Highland Park Elementary School, a black school proudly serving its Prince George's County neighborhood, was shuttered in the name of integration, emotions ran high. Now that court-ordered busing has been discontinued in the county, Highland Park has been reopened in the name of neighborhood schooling--and emotions are running high again.

Liza Mundy, whose article "The Busing Stops Here" appeared in yesterday's Magazine, has talked to dozens of Prince George's parents, students, teachers and administrators about the issue and is available to talk to you about it, too, today online.

Liza Mundy is a Staff Writer for The Washington Post Magazine.

Mundy says: "There is enormous importance to the end of court-ordered busing, the means by which many schools in this country were at long last integrated. Prince George's is one of several American school districts where busing was made famous and is now, famously, ending."

Please read Liza Mundy's cover story, "The Busing Stops Here," then submit your questions and comments in advance and during the Live Online hour.

Here is a copy of today's transcript.


Dayton, Ohio: Dear Ms. Mundy; Sorry for the early reply, but I cannot be online during your talk. Thank you for an exciting and interesting article. My parents have lived in the Prince Gerorges area in Hyattsville for many years. When they first moved to the area from central Missouri, my fathers co-workers in DC -mostly african-american- wanted to know why they had picked such an area to live. They are white. They raised me to cherish diversity in a diverse neighborhood of Cleveland where I went to elementary school 1-2 a block away from my home. I have had the privilage of visiting their home at least once every year since their move. I agree with them both, that the neighborhoods are friendly, peaceful, and lovely. I plan to move to the area in a year or two with my elementary age children. I am encouraged to hear about the changes in bussing, as I despised the bussing that was necessary during my teen years in the rural area of Missouri, where we lived. I cannot imagine being bussed away from a local school, or the inequity of having my school closed...especialy when it clearly seems to be because of race. I wonder how these changes will impact my boys? They are currently in a school system where they are in the majority...we live outside the ring of the bussing schools of Dayton. I know my father grew up in Philidelphia in a predominately african-american neighborhood, but he is reluctant to pass on any information regarding what it is like to be in the minority. I know I have no concept other than brief job experiences being the only woman, I can bring no real world understanding to the changes they will face. I would like to believe that the lovely neigborhoods and friendly people I meet on my visits are reflections of the school environments they will be creating over the next few years. The phenomena of the "white flight" is simply mysterious to me. Why move further away from jobs, the Metro, the fine older neighborhoods, and a sense of community? I am fleeing bland suburbia in order to raise my children with a sense of community. Our not-so-nuclear families need the support of our neighbors, friends, and family...and the community to do it in. Bussing has passed its usefulness in this case.

Liza Mundy: Hi there and many thanks for writing in--and thanks to everybody else who will be submitting questions. I'm glad you're interested in the article.

To Dayton, Ohio: If I understand your question correctly, you're contemplating a move to the area before long, and are considering moving to Prince George's, and are wondering what school life will be like for your boys. Well, obviously, they won't be bused and won't be attending a school to which other kids are bused. Since you are white and the county is predominately black, chances are good that they would be attending a predominately black school. Without exceptions, the African American parents I talked to at Highland Park Elementary said they would welcome more students of other races, and so did the children: everybody seems to hope for more diversity.

With regard to white flight, which you say mystified you, I did talk to several demographers, who offered conflicting explanations for why this happened in Prince George's. Some believe that it was primarily because of busing, but another demographer, George Grier, has studied the phenomenon closely and suggests, based on his research, that it was mostly due to block-busting--that is, the practice in which a real estate agent would sell a house in a white neighborhood to a black family, hoping (successfully) to so alarm whites that they would sell their houses at lower prices. The agent could then buy the houses and sell them, at a profit, to more black families. I agree with you: white flight is a mystifying phenomenon, but in Prince George's a very powerful one. Anyway, good luck to you on your upcoming move.

Bladensburg: Are there plans to repair schools that are still in use but have severe needs, or is the emphasis on building new schools?

Liza Mundy: Good question. As I understand it, there are definite plans to build 13 schools, but also plans to refurbish at least that many.

Silver Spring: How much money will PG county save by ending busing? How is that money being spent?

Liza Mundy: A good question, and one that's not yet clear. With the end of busing, the county not only will no longer have to pay the costs of busing; it could, if it so desires, forego the costs of magnet programs, and the costs of giving special resources to "Milliken schools"--that is, schools which in the past have received extra resources as a result of being largely one-raced. What I'm trying to say it, the court no longer requires the county to bus; to maintains magnets; or to give more resources to schools that are all-black or virtually so. Everything now will have to be voted by the school board.

In terms of numbers, the state has pledged $35 million in each year, for four years, for capital construction costs; the county has pledged $32 million for each of those four years, also for capital projects. So that's where some of the money is going.

Landover, MD: Ms. Mundy,

In your opinion do the parents as a whole approve or disapprove of the new community school or would they prefer to have their children bused? The statements of Takea Marshall's parent seem to prefer busing. What about other parents in the school?

Liza Mundy: This is hard to quantify. I think most parents at Highland Park are glad their kids are no longer being bused, for any number of reasons: some because it's more convenient to have them close to home, others because they felt their kids were treated as strangers at the integrated schools they attended. I would say that on balance, a slight majority of the parents I talked to were glad busing was over; but a substantial minority would have preferred busing to continue, not just for personal reasons but because of a broader belief in the benefits, to society, of integration.

Gaithersburg, MD: What did the white community in Prince George's County think about the new changes in the school policy?

Liza Mundy: THat's a good question, but difficult for me to answer since I spent most of my time at Highland Park, among African-American parents. But I did visit Kenilworth Elementary, where TaKea Marshall's friends told me they missed her a lot; the principal also really missed some of the kids he had seen grow up and, asked how they were doing.

Seat Pleasant, MD: My neice is a student of Kenilworth elementary school whose mother fought to keep her in that school rather than send her to a neighborhood school after the mandatory busing ended. She has a much different perspective than those parents you interviewed for your article. Why not get the perspective of parents such as my sister? She would be more than willing to discuss with you her reasons for keeping her child in Kenilworth.

Liza Mundy: I would have been glad to talk to your sister; I tried to talk to as many parents as possible. I think that Jenshel Marshall articulated well why she would have preferred to keep her daughter at Kenilworth; if your sister's views are different, please encourage her to write a letter to the Magazine, addressed to Letters, Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th Street, 20071 and share her views.

Lanham, MAryland: What is the total cost of the new schools that will have to be built to end buding? How is this going to be paid for?

Liza Mundy: I think I answered this in an earlier questions, but in case it isn't clear; as part of the memorandum of understanding that led to the settlement of the busing law suit, the Maryland General Assembly agreed to contribute $140 million to the constructio of new community schools, and the county wll provide at least $128 million, to be allocated over a period of four years. After this, more money may be spent, but that would have to be voted on--it isn't part of the settlement. The figures I described above are what it took for the parties in the suit to agree to settle.

Alexandria, Virginia: Dear Ms. Mundy,

Thank you for an interesting article. I was especially intrigued by your description of Kendra. From the information given in your article it would seem that she was uncomfortable in a diverse population, away from her community. Do you know of any studies or other information that has looked into possible negative effects on African-American students and their communities as a result of forced integration?

I recently read an article by Doris Wilkinson in which she claims that forced integration has been harmful to the African-American community.

I am interested in your thoughts on this. I would also like to see if there is any real evidence to support this view.

Liza Mundy: I don't know of any studies that demonstrably prove the negative effects, on African American students, of integration, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. That's such a good question and I wish I could answer that definitively. I think it would matter so much, how large a minority the kids comprised at the school: for example, when Highland Park was closed in 1973, the kids were shipped to four different schools in Bowie, meaning that they made up just a tiny minority at each school. It seems to me that, in retrospect, there should have been a way to make it a little easier on the kids; being part of a critical mass must make things easier, at least that's what I would think. Thanks so much for your comments.

Gaithersburg, MD: I am confused about something in the article. Many of the parents and children in the Highland Park Community talked about being the definite minority in mostly white schools during busing. If the population of Prince George's County is 80% black, where were all of the other black children? Was it impossible during the busing era for the county to make the schools more even in terms of racial make up? Perhaps I misunderstood something.

Liza Mundy: This is a great question, and let me see if I can answer it to the best of my ability. I'm sorry if you were confused. Based on the reports I've looked at, this is what I think: at the beginning, black and white children were both bused, and at some schools, the proportion really was something like half and half. But white children began to bleed out of the county almost immediately, and even at the schools where it was something like half and half, this quickly changed, and the courts had to keep ratcheting the "acceptable" percentage upward and upward: to 70 percent, to 90 percent, etcetera. At the same time, during the 1980s some of the schools were released from all quotas and declared to be Milliken schools: that is, they would receive more teachers and more resources and allowed to become basically all-black. Elsewhere, students were bused away from their neighborhood schools, which were predominately black, to schools that were also predominately black but slightly less so--just to ensure that every school was under the ceiling. I wonder if I've only made things more confusing. The thing is, it IS confusing--there have been all these different solutions and half-measured adopted--and that's one of the reasons, I think, why everybody just threw up their hands and agreed for the suit to end.

But I think that for the parents at Highland Park, many may have had experiences where they were initially bused to a shcool where they were in the minority, and then by the time they reached middle and high school, the numbers might have shifted. I hope this makes somewhat more sense.

Herndon, VA: Ms. Mundy: Your article was outstanding. As a parent of two teen-aged boys, I can sympathize with the conflicting feelings which come about when school attendance options are weighed. In the schools you studied, it seems to me there is an almost-universal desire - as there would be at other schools - to have your child go to a school with "good children from good families," i.e., none from the "underclass."

Liza Mundy: Thanks very much. What you say, I think, sort of fits what has become the common wisdom; that today, any schisms between parents in Prince George's are related to class rather than race. Certainly, as you say, there seem to be class conflicts at Highland Park, as there are everywhere. I hate to keep saying that the situation is complicated, but it really is: sometimes it's hard to separate race and class. When some parents told me that they would prefer their kids to go to integrated schools, in some cases they were talking socioeconomics--they'd rather their kids went to school with more middle-class kids--but others were saying this out of a genuine belief, simply, in the benefits of diversity. I also talked to parents from middle-class homes in the Highland Park area who are very, very determined to make the school work; who embraced the kids from lower-income backgrounds; one parents, for example, who has volunteered her services every Wednesday to tutor any child who needs it. Like most writers, I wish there had been space in the piece to do justice to everybody.

Landover, MD: Many of the problems that were discussed in the article are problems that exist within schools that considered innercity. In your investigation, did you consider the socio-economic factors of the parents in the community? How did you guage the level of parent involvement? The school from your article is a new school in transition with new staff and establishing their culture as it grows. Was it fair to write the article now as the school struggles to make its own identity?

Liza Mundy: A very fair question--during the reporting, I tried to always keep in mind that Highland Park is a new school and that the challenges of building a PTA, or learning to use new technology, or even eating cold sandwiches until the cafetera is ready, are simply those of opening a new school. On the other hand, I think it's worth exploring this transitional period, and what it's like for the kids who are making the transition, and in that sense I do think it's quite fair to look at a new school.

Mt. Rainier MD: It's very hard to substantiate, but I feel that real estate agents frequently promote segregation. I was looking at houses in Mt. Rainier 15 years ago. I -I'm white-told the agent quite specifically that was where I wanted to live - it was really convenient, good bus service, and some wonderful old homes. Yet he still ended up driving me out to places like Cheverly. I finally found the house myself, and I love the neighborhood, and I love the mix of people. We had some of the original white families, some black families from the black flight days, some newer Salvadorean families, some Philippinos, some yuppies -we're very broadminded-, and some Takoma Park refugees. The old white families have since died off or retired to a distance but the neighborhood has stayed integrated.

Liza Mundy: Fascinating question. In a sense, racial steering is a whole 'nother topic--one that merits close and regular investigation--and a whole 'nother article. But in another sense, of course it is so closely tied to the busing issue that you really cannot ignore it. I tried to address white flight in my article without letting it overwhelm the topic of busing, and busing's end, but I idn't have a chance to go into the topic of racial steering now. I hope somebody will.

Wheaton: Liza, how many children are still being bused? How long until there is no busing at all?

Liza Mundy: Well, this year only three new elementary schools opened, so I would suspect that some 10,000 or so kids are still being bused--I could be wrong--and that the real changes will occur next year, when some new middle and high schools open. Busing will be completely ended in the year 2002. A caveat: This is an interim period, and it's remotely possible that one of the original parties could file to have the suit re-opened, but all parties agree that this is very unlikely to happen.

Silver Spring: Ms. Mundy -
I am a PG County teacher. I was impressed by the upbeat tone of your article - fairly rare in press coverage of our county. Do you think that the reputation that PG County schools have - is justified? Could the burden of the busing have contributed to the system's woes? I realize that test scores are low in PG County compared to other counties, but I often feel that outsiders are unfairly judgemental and negative about the quality of schools in the county.

Liza Mundy: Thanks for your comment. I am no expert on education in the D.C. area, and have no worthwhile insight into which counties deserve their reputation, and which don't, or even necessarily what those reputations are. One thing I'd like to say, is that the county--and especially the school, Highland Park--were very hospitable, very willing to be scrutinized, willing to tolerate a reporter in their midst for quite a long time, and they did not put any restrictions on my inquiries or movement. From a reporter's viewpoint, this certainly impressed me. I saw a lot of energy, a lot of determination.

As for the burden of busing, I guess the common wisdom now is that the real burden is TRIM--that is, the tax system that limits (I think I'm right about this) real estate tax assessments and thus limits the amount of money that can be given to schools.

Washington, DC: You may not answer this, in fact many consider it even racist to bring up.
Why do you think it is that majority black schools, even in relatively wealthy majority black counties such as PG, continue to perform at a substantially lower level than white suburban schools?

Liza Mundy: This is a vexed question, one that I'm certainly no expert on; there is a book, called, I believe, the Black-White Test Gap, that addresses it. Some argue, as I'm sure you know, that standardized tests are in some ways biased against minorities; others, noting that the scores of black children tend to rise when they attend school with white children, conclude that this is because white children--on average--come from families that are more affluent, more middle-class, so it's not so much a race thing as a class thing. And in Prince George's, there is, of course, a much-vaunted middle class, but there's also an underclass as well. Personally, I just don't know enough about the data to know whom to believe; I do think the data tend to be coopted by people with racial prejudices; sometimes I wish everybody would just stop being so obsessed with numerical scores, period.

Hyattsville, formerly Fort Washington, MD: I am a 34 yr old white PG resident since I was 3 years old. I attended PG schools my whole life - was quite happy with my education by the way. I grew up in largely white southern PG county and remember clearly the beginning of bussing at my white elementary school in 2nd grade. What makes some whites enbrace the significant changes that have happened in this county and what makes others flee? I wrestle with this issue frequently when my former PG friends hint how much better it is in Howard, Carroll and other "white flight" counties with horrible commutes. I remember feeling sorry for the 6 black childen per classroom that were bussed in from glassmanor on the DC line to suburban Harmony Hall elementary school. They huddled together at lunch and recess. I remember making a friend, Carla Jenkins and trying to have her come and play. But racism distance and class issues seemed to doom our friendship. The other white kids seem to distain my efforts to reach out and I seemed to lack the will to push these boundaries. I was happy to read in the article that children at mixed race schools now seem to make friends more easily with other races as my daughter has too. She attends a great magnet school where she is a minority in the classroom. I wonder if the greater racial harmony of the next generation exists is because those white and blacks who live in PG county now are more self selected pro-integraton group. I do think that bussing helped this over the last 28 years. I am sad for the kids at Highland Park not to have as much diversity but until the older inside the beltway communities south of Hyattsville are rediscovered by whites I don't see this changing soon. I think the magnet programs can lure a fairly large number of white families back into the PG county schools. I think the magnets are our best hope for maintaining diversity now that bussing is ending.

Liza Mundy: All good insights; I don't have anything to add that goes beyond what I've said before, but I thought I'd include this brief reply to ensure that your observations were posted.

Landover,MD: As you wrote your article, did you attempt to visit any other schools that demographics have changed due to the stopping of busing?
How are the teachers and students from the Bowie area feeling that their school population has changed with the departure of the students from the Highland Park area?

Liza Mundy: When I was beginning reporting I did some research into the other community schools that were opening; once I'd picked Highland Park, however, I tried to spend most of my time there rather than visiting other schools. I did visit Kenilworth, however, where the minority percentage has dropped, I think, from being somewhere in the 30th percentil to more like the 20th. (I am thinking it has gone from being about 33 percent minority to about 22 percent.) As I said earlier, the principal and students did say, specifically, that they missed many of the students they'd come to know from the Highland Park area. Of course, one thing has happened is that Bowie itself has become more diverse, to the school has not entirely lost its black population, and there are kids of other ethnic minorities as well. But I note that the school does use "diversity" as a plus-factor on the informational sheet it distributes; these days, all schools want to be able to say they were diverse, so I would imagine that in that sense, too, they are sorry to see the numbers change. You lose a selling point.

Wheaton: Ms.Mundy -
Basically, it appears to me that forced busing is not the solution to racial segregation in the schools. I believe that the schools are often blamed for situations they did not create - unfair allocation of resources, white flight, socioeconomic conditions that cause some children to perform poorly on some tests, etc. So now they are ending busing, becuase it caused far more problems that it solved.
This still leaves the central questions which led to busing unanswered - and in my opinion, the scale of the PG County lawsuit was all wrong. What about per-pupil spending state-wide? Class size state-wide? Access to the best teachers? -read: pay levels and training opportunities- library facilities etc etc?
The schools in Prince George's County are struggling to bring many extremely poor readers up to speed, among other huge challenges, and are measured by current status rather than total progress from a starting point. Busing does not help the schools meet these challenges. Do you think ending busiong will help us meet these challenges?

Liza Mundy: Well, the people in charge believe that ending busing will help the county direct its attention to things like bringing up reading scores, bringing up test scores, improving facilities, all the things you say. Of course, it's too early to tell. One of the questioners earlier asked whether money will be directed at existing schools as well as new schools, and I think that's a very important questions: there are some elementary schools near Highland Park whose physical plants are nowhere near as impressive, and obviously, some attention needs to be paid to them as well. If I were a student--or parent--at an older school, I'd want to make sure that existing schools weren't being overlooked in the much ballyhooed move to build new ones.

I think I've timed out here. Thanks so much to everyone who wrote in; if I haven't gotten to you, feel free to email me at Mundyl@washpost.com, and please also consider writing to the magazine, at 1150 15th street NW, Washington D.C 20071 so your views could be expressed on our mail page. You can also send letters to me and I'll route them to our letters editor. Thanks again.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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