One of the most fundamental rights Americans have is the right to a free public education, yet education inequalities have existed as far back as the late nineteenth century when schools segregated their students. It is easy to forget that for generations of American students, the races never sat in the same classrooms. That is until the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision which struck down the "separate but equal" concept. This section focuses on desegregation and busing in public schools, including a historical framework to desegregation and busing, innovative approaches, and desegregation in theory and practice. Click on the links below to learn more.
Desegregation and Busing: Background Information
Segregation was an unfortunate reality in the United States until relatively recently. Although all Americans have the right to a free public education, it was previously the opinion that as long as equal opportunities were provided students could still be separated by race. Very often opportunities were not equal, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education that "separate but equal" is not appropriate and necessarily infringed upon the equal protection rights of students. Segregation continued following the Brown decision, partly because of resistance to desegregation in some communities, and partly because the economic and social impact of discrimination had resulted in de-facto segregation where communities established under segregationist policies had clear divisions along race lines.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a variety of different efforts were made to desegregate schools. The reaction to these programs was highly mixed. Some were successful, while others met substantial legal and political resistance. These efforts, at times, appeared to be more divisive than inclusive and remain highly emotional and political issues in American politics. Desegregation has also been complicated by the country's increasing diversity. Initially framed as an issue involving only Americans of African descent, diversity issues must now take into consideration large Asian and Latino populations, among others.
Desegregation in Theory and Practice
For a long period of time segregation was a matter of law. Communities that had laws requiring the segregation of blacks and whites are referred to as de jure segregated. Where these laws did not exist, and in the communities that previously had these laws, there was frequently a de facto segregation that occurred. De facto segregation is when whites and blacks live, work, and study in separate communities, not because they are forced to do so by law, but for other social and economic reasons.
Segregation has come to be viewed as a serious problem regardless of the cause. The courts found that schools had an affirmative duty to desegregate, and to do so quickly. In the aftermath of Brown schools seeking to desegregate found it necessary to begin bringing students from one racially homogenous area into another to attend school. Although busing became both necessary and possible in urban areas, the system was much less appropriate in suburban communities. Whites that opposed these measures left urban areas for the less racially diverse suburbs in large numbers. This later came to be called "white flight," which led to a decline in the quality of education and resources for many urban schools.