Busing, Most Pleased to See It Go
By Robert E. Pierre and Rene Sanchez
When court-ordered busing took effect in Prince George's County in 1972, it was viewed as a necessary evil by many blacks who wanted better schools, equipment and teachers for their children. Many whites, meanwhile, felt it was a heavy-handed government intrusion into local affairs and fled the county for more distant suburbs.
But more than a quarter-century later, many black and white Prince Georgians have come to the same conclusion: Forced busing has outlived its usefulness and become a burden.
That political consensus led a federal judge yesterday to pave the way for the end of busing, which had come to be almost universally despised. The decision though it won't end busing immediately was a welcome outcome for many Prince Georgians.
"In its day and at its inception, it was an appropriate response to the obstinate refusal of our school system to desegregate," said Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who is black. "It grew obsolete. The school system had become so disproportionately African American. Everything changed except the case itself."
In 1972, whites made up more than 80 percent of the county's population. After a dramatic demographic shift in which whites left the county in large numbers and blacks moved in to take their place the county is now 60 percent black, and African Americans make up 75 percent of the school population. The result is that black children are now bused outside their neighborhoods to other black schools a concept that some busing opponents call "ridiculous."
The end of busing in Prince George's also reflects a seismic shift in thinking that is emerging in many of the nation's school districts. After two decades of wrenching debate on the value of integrating schools through busing, federal courts and even growing numbers of black parents are losing interest in the strategy, saying that it has been too costly and divisive, or that it has failed to help many students academically.
Instead, courts and parents are pressuring districts either to adopt less extreme, voluntary measures to integrate schools with magnet academic programs, for example or to forsake that notion altogether and focus simply on making separate schools equal.
"Black and white parents are saying that they just want to improve their neighborhood schools, regardless if they're integrated or not," said Jennifer Dounay, a researcher for the Education Commission of the States, which monitors school policies nationwide.
In recent years, an array of school districts Oklahoma City, Denver, Cleveland, Wilmington, Del. have all but abandoned forced busing with the blessing of courts. Many others are now pleading with courts to let them dissolve their desegregation plans.
But that trend is controversial. Even as many parents, black and white, cheer the moves to dismantle busing programs, most of which were created in the early 1970s, many educators say that a shrugging acceptance of segregation as a fact of life in schools one too powerful to be overcome by social engineering is dangerous.
Sylvester Vaughns, who filed the original Prince George's suit, criticized the judge's decision. "We're going to go back to one-race schools. Many white people in this county have always wanted that. For the first year or so, everybody's going to be happy about it, maybe." But eventually, he added, "we're going to end up with black schools and white schools and everyone's going to lose, black and white."
A recent study by researchers at Harvard University concluded that segregation in the nation's schools is increasing, especially in urban areas, and that in many places it is just as bad, if not worse, than it was in the 1960s. The gaps in academic achievement between white and black students also have widened slightly in recent years after nearly two decades of closing. Some education analysts contend that both trends are in part a consequence of the demise of busing.
Others argue that busing has never lived up to its promise and has exacted a great toll on many families. More and more polls show that black parents are more willing now than they have been in a generation simply to improve their neighborhood schools even if it's at the expense of integration.
In Prince George's, parents of all races had become so frustrated with the county's poor-performing schools that they were willing to try just about anything that might help improve student performance.
"One of the negatives was that when kids were moved so far away from home, parents were no longer involved in the schools," said Janette Bell, 51, a lifelong Prince Georgian who is president of the Prince George's County Educators' Association. "African American parents did not feel welcome in many of the buildings. They did not feel a part of the process."
Bell, who is black, was a teacher at an all-white school when the order took effect. She remembers that white students and their parents were worried about the black students coming to their school. And black parents were apprehensive about their children traveling to faraway schools they knew nothing about.
"There was apprehension," said Bell, who taught second grade at the time. "One thing about children, once they get together and start to know and understand each other, the problems really stop. Most of the problems are really adult problems."
U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who grew up in Glenarden, was in college when the order was put in place. Although it helped to improve opportunities for black students and improve understanding between blacks and whites, Wynn said, he is glad the order is going away.
"The failure was to maintain it when it was no longer accomplishing its goal," said Wynn, whose district includes Prince George's and Montgomery. "Today is an important milestone in the progress and maturity of the county school system, in that we can now focus on achievement and performance. We're still underachieving and we've got to do better."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company