Monday, March 1, 2010

Busing in North Carolina

On Tuesday, the Wake County Board of Education will consider whether to restrict the distance that students may be bused. This sounds like the prototypical busing example where race takes center stage, with white parents pushing back on busing plans that take their kids away from local schools.

But the Wake County example appears more complicated than that.

Two aspects of the debate jumped out at me. First, this is a busing plan defended on the value of economic diversity, not race. This is a sensible strategy. This comes up often in affirmative action debates: rather than take race into account, which in the end might benefit rich and poor indiscriminately, plans should take class, or economic disadvantage into account, which will target the "truly disadvantaged."

Incidentally, it appears the plan is working, if test scores are any indication. But the benefits of the plan might not be enough to offset the costs, at least for the parents whose children must bear much of this cost. Unfortunately, Black and Latino children are disproportionately poor within the district, so the plan ultimately pits rich white parents against parents of color. And in such a fight, I think we can safely predict who will prevail.

Second, this debate is taking place in Wake County, an affluent and Democratic county outside Raleigh, North Carolina. Busing is traditionally a highly polarizing issue. After all, it asks parents to bear direct costs of policies that will benefit their own children indirectly. Adding race to the mix only worsens matters. Wake County is not an exception. In the most recent election, four Republican candidates won a seat on the school board, pledging to end the policy. They swept into office by an average of 64% of the vote. After the election, the composition of the Board shifted from 8-1 in favor of the busing policy to 5-4 against it.

This is yet another example of the toxicity inherent to debates over race and politics. More importantly, this is an example of the promise of political action as well as its inherent limitations. White parents mobilized and, aided by the Republican Party, were able to see direct results. This is sure to warm the heart of anyone who believes in the promise of Democracy and the power of people to affect action in their communities. What is not to like about that?

Conversely, to lose in this debate is to end up in inferior schools. This is no small matter. Worse yet, this is an outcome that could have been predicted even before it began: rich white parents against poor and often colored communities.

This was hardly a fair fight.

This is the oldest story in history, the classic prisoners' dilemma: what to do when community benefits come in direct tension with benefits to individuals? For a majority of parents in the Wake County district, the answer is clear. Their position should surprise no one.

All the same, it is regrettable.