Earlier this week, USA Today ran a piece on several school districts that are waging war on poverty and the linked effect on educational inequality, and using the yellow school bus as the primary weapon.
Reporter Jordan Schrader cites examples in Kalamazoo, Mich., Louisville, Ky., and Wake County, N.C., where school districts have gone to income-based student assignments and hence transportation services that seek to promote equality for its poor and minority students. In fact, Wake County was especially aggressive as its current policy dates back to 2000.
This was years ahead of a Supreme Court ruling that directed that schools end desegregation busing to remove race from the equation; yet, slowly but surely, racial integration has crept back into the mainstream in large metropolises like Boston and Seattle, but also in Tucson, Ariz., and Wichita, Kan. It's tied to a rise in attendance at neighborhood schools, even as No Child Left Behind has promised to allow students a choice to attend higher-achieving schools located elsewhere, often in more economically stable parts of the community. Yet it has failed to deliver.
And all too often, unfortunately, it does matter if you're black or white, or any other color for that matter, when reviewing the quality of education received compared to family income.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, wrote more than eight years ago that "the separation of poor and middle-class children is the fountainhead of a host of related inequalities of educational opportunity..." and some correlations, or at least generalities, can be drawn between socioeconomic conditions and race. He goes on to point out that an adequate financial base is the leading indicator of good schools because they allow small class size and modern equipment, whereas low-income schools spend on their students about half that of more affluent schools. In his own words:
"If integration matters, the new emphasis should be on socioeconomic status."
At the time, and remember this was 2001, Kahlenberg believed that busing was not the future to finding socioeconomic fairness in education. He cited a 1998 Public Agenda poll that found 76 percent of white parents and 42 percent of black parents were opposed to using busing to realize a better racial balance in schools. The USA Today article is an indicator that things are changing in this regard, or at least socioeconomic challenges have risen to the forefront of the discussion.
Kahlenberg himself told School Transportation News in April 2008 that transportation systems are essential to providing educational equality, a point with which a July study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and an American School Bus Council survey of parents released in August agreed.
Just as school busing is available to serve a greater social good beyond its unparalleled safety record, reducing traffic congestion and giving options to working parents, the service is one of the few remaining bastions to ensuring that school children have a true choice in their education. For the very reason school buses were invented, for providing transportation options to students who might find it difficult to attend class because of where they lived in correlation to where they could receive an education, the yellow vehicles as well as transit are as important as ever to realizing the best and most fair form of economic redistribution available: education itself.
It's become politically correct if not downright über-fashionable to remove the elephant of race from the room when it comes to politics, or any other public conversation for that matter, as if to appease ourselves into believing that racism no longer exists. But make no mistake about it, race relations continue to be the single biggest threat to our nation's and world's infrastructure, and it can all be tied back to education, or a lack thereof.