The United States recently observed the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education
It was on May 17, 1954, that the high court unanimously overturned the “separate but equal” policy in public schools that had existed since 1896.
The anniversary was marked by media coverage presenting divergent opinions on the success of this mandate. Some civil rights advocates contend that the U.S. still has a long way to go to bring about true equality in the educational arena. In fact, some argue that many urban areas of the country have returned to segregated schools.
If, in fact, resegregation has taken place, that goes against the wishes of most Americans, who believe that integration has improved the quality of education for blacks and whites. The increasing ethnic diversity of this country requires that we take all the necessary steps to encourage integration.
Buses drawn into the controversy
Without a doubt, school buses have played a critical role in bringing about the racial integration demanded by the Supreme Court. But it took time.
Although the court ordered in 1954 that desegregation be eliminated “with all deliberate speed,” it was several years before busing became the tool that would help to actually bring about desegregation.
It was in the early 1970s that court-ordered busing first began to make national headlines, drawing transportation departments into the fray. Eventually, hundreds of school districts became involved in desegregation busing.
During this period, the yellow school bus became a symbol of the psychic divide between those who favored desegregation busing and those who were adamantly opposed. It could be seen in photos in Boston in 1973, with young black faces peering from the windows as helmeted police stood guard.
In the wake of those turbulent years, the school bus has distanced itself from those incendiary images. In many cities where desegregation busing is still in place, the program is voluntary, and the school bus is perceived as a bridge between diverse neighborhoods, helping to promote educational equity.
Challenges still remain
Cross-town busing, as it’s often known, has presented logistical challenges for school bus fleets. But transportation supervisors have managed to make this difficult task seem easy. We know that it’s not. The additional resources needed to transport students to schools outside their neighborhoods cannot be underestimated.
Handling the additional routes created by desegregation busing programs often requires more buses, more drivers and more maintenance technicians. Controlling costs becomes a top priority under these circumstances.
Over the past decade, many school districts have been declared “unitary” and released from mandatory court-ordered busing programs. Many of these school districts have embraced “controlled choice” as a means to continue desegregation policies. This strategy, whether it’s embodied by magnet schools or school choice, presents its own set of challenges, of which I’m sure you’re aware.
School bus fleets will continue to play a role in remedying inequities in educational opportunity. You should be proud of the role that school transportation has played in this movement over the past 50 years. Keep up the good work!