School bus
Susan Pendergrass

There are a lot of policies that seem like a good idea, but aren’t. Busing low-income children of color to schools far away from their home in order to expose them to more middle-class white children is one such idea. And busing children in both directions for the sole purpose of achieving racial balance, as was done in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, has also proven to be a failed policy. Giving disadvantaged children “opportunities” to witness the way middle-class kids move through the world is a patronizing idea. And it doesn’t reduce educational achievement gaps.

Busing may have been the only option for blending the two separate school systems in the South in the latter half of the last century. But today, it remains wildly unpopular with parents. White, middle-class children are the key to the policy and yet, when busing goes into effect, they tend to flee the school. Many urban districts don’t have enough white children to create any sort of balance. And suburban districts are often not interested in participating.

The research on the academic impact of such programs is labeled “variable” at best by its most ardent supporters. In fact, there is stronger evidence that having a teacher of the same race as the student improves academic outcomes. In other words, the race of the person at the front of the room can make a difference in a way that the race of the other students doesn’t.

You know what is popular with parents, and especially with low-income parents of color? Getting to choose where their children attend school rather than having them be assigned or bussed to one. And in many cases, parents would prefer to be able to choose a school where the staff looks like their child, rather than a school where the other students don’t. Researchers at Stanford have determined that low-income black and Hispanic students who attended charter schools of their choice made significant academic gains when compared to their matched peers who attended traditional public schools in the same district. This is a policy that works.

Before there were options like charter schools, the only way to get children from distressed neighborhoods out of their troubled schools was to pick them up every day and take them somewhere else. We now know that giving every parent options for where to send their children to school negates the need for districts to shuffle kids around. It’s time to stop arguing about who’s for or against a failed policy from 50 years ago and give disadvantaged parents the educational options they want and need.


About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.