Busing was never popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when federal courts mandated programs in many communities as a way to desegregate schools. Those orders were mostly lifted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and scant polling has been done on the matter for more than a decade.
The new Gallup poll, conducted in July, came after busing and segregation emerged as flash points in the Democratic presidential primary race, with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) hitting former vice president Joe Biden for his opposition to 1970s-era busing. While the pair disagreed over Biden’s actions at the time, neither candidate advocated a return to busing today.
The poll asked about four possible remedies for segregated schools and found that the most popular, by far, was creating regional magnet schools offering specialized courses, with 79 percent support. Two in three adults supported promoting more low-income housing in higher-income areas.
A Washington Post analysis found that children living in big cities remain locked in segregated school districts, even amid a large jump in the number of students in highly integrated districts. The integrated districts are typically in smaller places that were once mostly white and now have substantial Latino populations.
Gallup found that 6 in 10 people said they favor redrawing school system boundaries to create more racially diverse districts. It’s an idea that some experts say would help integrate schools because there is so much segregation between districts. But few have proposed such an idea, much less gained traction with it. Even more-modest plans to redraw school boundary lines within a district typically face sharp opposition.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many different surveys measured support for busing, with the questions varying from poll to poll. But support typically was below 30 percent. The strongest show of support appears to have come in a 1986 Washington Post/ABC News poll, which found that 40 percent of people favored busing “as a last resort for school integration.”
The new Gallup poll uses different wording from that of past surveys, but its finding that 43 percent of Americans favor busing puts it at or near a historical high in polling. Support may be higher, in part, because it is not a policy affecting many people today.
Among Democrats, support reached 59 percent. But among Republicans, it was 20 percent.
The poll may understate support for the most common forms of busing. It asks about requiring districts to bus students to neighboring school systems, rather than just inside their own. That would represent a more profound change in student assignment than most people are used to discussing.
The Gallup survey shows wide partisan fault lines on nearly every aspect of the issue of school segregation. Asked if the federal government should take additional steps to reduce racial concentration or segregation in public schools, 73 percent of Democrats say yes vs. 27 percent of Republicans, a 46-point gap. Independents were close to the public overall at 54 percent.
The partisan gap over busing was never more than 20 percentage points in the General Social Survey, which asked about the issue regularly from 1972 to 1996. The Gallup poll shows a 39-point partisan divide on this policy today.
The widening gap may stem from the times. Democrats have grown more concerned about racial inequality after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer and through Donald Trump’s presidency. A Pew Research Center poll last year found 85 percent of Democrats saying “our country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites,” up from 78 percent in 2016 and 67 percent in 2014.
The Gallup poll was conducted July 15 to 31 among a random national sample of 3,038 adults, including 70 percent reached on cellphones and 30 percent on landlines. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus two percentage points. The error margins for racial and partisan subgroups range from three to seven percentage points.