Last week the Boston School Committee voted to end an extraordinary 25-year experiment in racial school desegregation under the twin pressures of a pending legal challenge and overwhelming demographic change. Part of a larger national trend, the Boston case poignantly raises the question: What new policies can better promote equal educational opportunity in the next generation?
The Constitution, which required busing in Boston as a remedy to de jure segregation in 1974, was, ironically, the instrument used by white plaintiffs in 1999 to bring pressure to end the consideration of race in students' assignment. Under some recent court decisions, once a school district is deemed to have eradicated the vestiges of discrimination, race no longer can be used even to promote integration.
Demographically, the Boston public schools have gone from 52 percent white, 48 percent minority in 1974 to 16 percent white, 84 percent minority today. As in many jurisdictions across the country (including Prince George's County), the changing numbers made busing for integration look like a relic.
While busing split Boston wide open in the 1970s, today there is a fairly broad consensus that the policy was ineffective. The principle of integration was sound, but the plan was marred by two major flaws of implementation.
First, the local federal judge, his hands tied by the Supreme Court's decision in Milliken v. Bradley, exempted the largely white and affluent suburbs surrounding the city of Boston from his desegregation order. This decision dramatically changed the white/black student ratio, and it also gave rise to a legitimate complaint about double standards. The plan's supporters -- the judge, the editors of the liberal Boston Globe and various Harvard professors -- generally lived beyond the reach of the court order. Then-state Sen. William Bulger complained that Boston's working class was "being asked to do something the rest of the world confides they won't do themselves."
As a practical matter, Boston's plan involved those who could not afford to move or use private schools: poor and working-class people, black and white. Today, 74 percent of Boston public schools students are low income, a phenomenon repeated in city after city. Harvard's Orlando Patterson notes, "Ethnic segregation now increasingly masks the real story: class segregation."
The integration of poor whites and poor blacks did virtually nothing to raise achievement levels or life chances of students, because researchers find that black students do better in integrated schools primarily for reasons of class rather than race. More than 30 years ago, James Coleman's famous education study found that "the beneficial effects of a student body with a high proportion of white students come not from racial composition per se but from the better educational backgrounds and higher educational aspirations that are, on the average, found among whites."
The second major problem with the Boston plan was that the original scheme (later modified) provided no element of choice to parents. Those living in certain areas were compelled to send their children to designated schools as part of a remedy for the school committee's past acts of discrimination. To take an already powerless group of people and, as J. Anthony Lukas wrote in "Common Ground," treat them like "pawns on a black-and-white chessboard," was not only unfair, it was an invitation to chaos.
But if Boston's busing plan was largely unsuccessful, the school committee's decision to return essentially to a system of neighborhood schools (with a small overlay of public school choice) may be even worse. Implicit in the conservative argument for vouchers is the liberal truth that neighborhood assignment can be a grave source of injustice and is, for people who can't afford to move, no less compulsory than the old busing schemes.
Most parents intuitively know that high-poverty schools, even ones receiving the same or additional levels of funding as middle-class schools, tend not to work very well. What makes schools good or bad is not so much the per capita spending as the people who make up the community. Where it is wrong to assume a predominantly black school is inherently inferior, in schools with high levels of poverty, studies consistently show that a given student will be surrounded by society's least motivated peers, the least active and least powerful parents and the least talented teachers.
Fortunately there is a third alternative to segregated schools and forced city busing: economic school integration. Given changes in the legal landscape, some communities are turning directly to economic status as a constitutional way of promoting integration. San Francisco, for example, is shifting toward a plan to integrate students primarily by economic status rather than race.
To be a real success, economic integration must involve the suburbs. There is exciting new case law from Connecticut on this matter, where the state supreme court held in Sheff v. O'Neill that the suburbs of Hartford must be part of a plan to alleviate de facto racial concentrations. The logic of the decision (based on the right to equal educational opportunity) applies with even greater force to economic concentrations, and Massachusetts -- along with many other states -- may one day be required under state law to liberate poor kids from bad high-poverty schools.
An interdistrict economic integration plan would be fairer than one limited to city borders, and would also significantly reduce the chances of middle-class flight. In the racial context, integration plans were most successful, and most stable, in communities such as Louisville, Ky. and Charlotte, N.C, where city and suburb were all part of a single school district.
In order to work well, the new plans should build in an element of public school choice. In this predominantly middle-class country, every child should have the right to choose to attend a middle-class school in his or her area. Those implementing the new economic school integration can learn from the mistakes of the failed Boston scheme while at the same time avoiding the even greater failure under the old regime of "separate but equal."
The writer is a fellow at the Century Foundation.