It's not my purpose to defend the Oklahoma City school board, which has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to free it from a judicially ordered desegregation plan. But it does occur to me that it may be time for advocates of school integration to take another look at busing.
The case argued last week stems from a 1984 school board decision to end 13 years of busing for children in the primary grades and return to a system of neighborhood schools. Was that, as the plaintiffs argue, a deliberate attempt to resegregate the schools? Or was it, as the board insists, housing patterns, not racist intent, that left 40 percent of Oklahoma City's black first- through fourth-graders attending 10 nearly all-black schools?
I don't know. But as Julius Chambers of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund acknowledged during questioning by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it's hard to foresee a time when the Oklahoma City school system could have both neighborhood schools and racially integrated ones. His conclusion: the busing order is the only way to keep the schools integrated, and the court "should not let the school district ... reinstate the same assignment practices that caused segregation in the past."
Ronald Day, arguing for the school board, contended that Oklahoma City no longer assigns schoolchildren on the basis of race. "The important thing is that parents of all races have a choice," he said.
They're both wrong. The "assignment practices that caused desegregation in the past" were blatantly racist. Children were assigned not by place of residence but by race. The contention, enshrined by the 1954 desegregation decision, was that the Constitution required an end to race-based assignments.
That contention has now been transmogrified into the notion that the Constitution (or at any rate, the proper education of black children) requires racial balance in the schools. The unspoken thesis is that what is wrong with inner-city schools is that they have too many black children.
I don't buy it. There are plenty of dreadful schools populated by black children from low-income families, but there is also ample evidence that these children can learn -- even in all-black schools -- if they are given sufficient resources and properly taught.
It's true that poor neighborhoods often have difficulty getting their fair share of resources and competent teachers, but it is also true children from these neighborhoods often get the short end of the stick even when they are bused to predominantly white schools. If the problem is resources, why not sue for the resources rather than for busing?
As for the contention that poor black parents in Oklahoma City "have a choice" under the present scheme, it's hard to know what the school"If the problem is resources, why not sue for the resources rather than for busing?"board lawyer is talking about. Their low income gives them little choice as to where they will live, and the neighborhood school policy gives them no choice as to which schools their children will attend.
Still Ronald Day may be on to something. If the parents really did have a choice, might they not seek out better schools for their children? Not just the schools that happen to be at the end of the bus routes the plaintiffs would have the school board reinstitute, but schools that meet their preferences for curriculum, teaching style and discipline.
What I have in mind is not a voucher plan, like the one recently enacted in Milwaukee, which awards 1,000 low-income students -- one percent of Milwaukee's student population -- $2,500 in state school money in order to attend private, nonsectarian schools. I'm thinking of a more modest choice: allowing all parents to send their children to any school of their choice within the school district -- or, more modest yet, allowing them to transfer their children from neighborhood schools to any school in which their race is a minority, with free transportation provided.
Why haven't those who claim to care about the education of poor black children climbed aboard the "choice" bandwagon? The reason, aside from the vested interests of the school bureaucracies, seems to be that vouchers and choice are conservative causes.
Well, in the first place, there's nothing particularly conservative about the notion of choice, and in the second: So what? Does the fact that conservatives like school choice make it a bad idea? Does it make people like Polly Williams, the black Democratic state representative from inner-city Milwaukee who fought to implement the Milwaukee plan, traitors to the black/liberal cause?
School choice, freely exercised, might prove far more effective than busing in improving the educational chances for poor children.
And yet the people who call most ardently for busing are the same ones who argue loudest against choice. Is it bad form to ask why?