BUSING is the transporting of children to school by bus to achieve desegregation or racial balance. Until the late 1960s, the yellow school bus had largely been viewed as a symbol of progress representing the nation's transition from the one-room schoolhouse to the comprehensive consolidated school. In some cases, the spread of the school bus actually served to preserve racial segregation instead of reducing it, but those cases were the exception. By 1970, 43 percent of the nation's 42 million children rode buses to school.
The Supreme Court began the process of school desegregation in 1954 with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In many cities and towns, the immediate response to Brown was resistance, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with its threat to cut off funding to schools that engaged in discrimination, prompted many southern school districts to eliminate race-conscious pupil assignments. The result was a substantial increase by the end of the decade in the percentage of African American students attending desegregated schools in the South. Nevertheless, residential segregaton and continuing resistance to integration impeded desegregation efforts in many areas. In 1971, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a unanimous Supreme Court held that busing children outside their immediate neighborhood was a legitimate tool for promoting school integration. Within a year of the decision, more than forty judges had entered orders directing the use of busing to eliminate school desegregation.
Busing generated intense opposition. In some places, parents resorted to protests, civil disobedience, and violence to resist efforts to bus their children away from, or to bus other children to, neighborhood schools. Many white families fled to districts not subject to busing orders. A 1971 Gallup poll found that 77 percent of respondents opposed busing, with African Americans almost evenly split. When lower federal courts, as early as 1970, began ordering busing to eliminate racial segregation in such nonsouthern cities as Denver and Detroit, members of Congress from northern and western states joined their southern colleagues in seeking antibusing legislation. They did this even though the U.S. Office of Education estimated that only 2 to 3 percent of all busing was for desegregation purposes. In March 1972, President Richard M. Nixon proposed a package of antibusing measures, including a moratorium act, and hinted at support for a constitutional amendment. In June, Congress passed the Higher Education Act, with compromise antibusing provisions, including the Broomfield amendment, which delayed implementation of court busing orders until appeals had been exhausted.
Federal judges transformed the school bus into a tool for desegregation. However, two important developments in school desegregation jurisprudence hampered the effectiveness of this tool over the last quarter of the twentieth century. The first development was a limit the Supreme Court put on interdistrict remedies for segregation. Many southern urban school districts encompassed both majority-black inner-city schools and majority-white sub-urban schools, so desegregation could be promoted with intradistrict remedies. In the north, on the other hand, many urban school districts contained only majority-black schools and could not be desegregated without crossing school district lines. In May 1973, the Supreme Court upheld an appeals court ruling that barred Richmond, Virginia, from merging its predominantly black city schools with predominantly white suburban schools by busing across school district lines. In a landmark decision in July 1974, the Court ruled by a vote of 5 to 4 that the federal district and appeals courts in a Detroit case, Milliken v. Bradley, had erred in requiring busing among suburban and city schools for purposes of desegregation, because there was no showing that the school districts had taken action that contributed to interdistrict segregation. Although some districts did use interdistrict desegregation measures after Milliken, either voluntarily or under court order, the case undermined the effectiveness of busing as a tool to end segregation in many urban school districts.
The second important development leading to a decline in busing for desegregation purposes was the increasing tendency of federal courts to find that the effects of past intentional segregation had been eradicated. During the 1980s, courts allowed several school districts to end court-ordered busing and return to neighborhood schools because the continuing racial isolation was due to residential segregation and not actions of the school district. In its first effort to address how to determine whether a school district had transformed itself from a dual school system to a unitary system, the Supreme Court held that a school district could be freed of court supervision if it had "complied in good faith with the desegregation decree since it was entered" and had eliminated "the vestiges of past discrimination … to the extent practicable." In that case, Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991), the Court said that once a school district had achieved unitary status, it could alter its pupil assignment decisions without court supervision so long as it observed the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment. In other words, the district could adopt a plan that exacerbated racial imbalance so long as legitimate educational concerns rather than an intent to discriminate motivated the district. By the end of the twentieth century, forty-two desegration orders affecting forty-five school districts had been lifted. In those school districts that jettisoned busing plans and returned to neighborhood schools, school segregation usually increased.
Despite these judicial decisions, the use of busing to achieve integration had not ended by the early 2000s. Many school districts had not sought modification or termination of court-ordered desegregation plans. Furthermore, some districts had tried new desegregation strategies, such as magnet schools and controlled choice plans, which allow parents to choose the schools their children will attend but which also require large-scale busing. Nevertheless, the effect of Supreme Court decisions of the 1980s and 1990s was to shift the debate over school desegregation and the desirability of busing from the federal courts to state legislatures, school boards, and parents.
Formisano, Ronald P. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Gaillard, Frye. The Dream Long Deferred. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press, 1996.
Patterson, James T. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Schwartz, Bernard. Swann's Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.