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Very little busing for desegregation left in Philly

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As the School District and the courts prepare to put to rest the long-running legal battle over racial equity in schools, some statistics about school busing came to light that deserve a little more attention. Busing students for desegregation, which in the 1980s and 90s was the District’s main avenue for parents to exercise school choice, has declined by almost 90 percent since then.

Instead of busing between District schools, students are now primarily bused around the city to attend charter schools.

It is hard to know what to make of this development, whether it represents progress or not. What is clear, though, is that charter schools are no more likely to be desegregated by race and ethnicity than traditional public schools — they may even be slightly more segregated.

The history is very interesting. In one of the earlier phases of the 40-year-old school desegregation case that will come to a formal end on Monday, Superintendent Constance Clayton in the 1980s inaugurated a voluntary busing program. (At the time, the PHRC wanted mandatory busing — which Clayton and all her predecessors had rejected outright since the case began in 1970.) At its peak, some 14,000 students were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods to improve the schools’ racial diversity.

As late as 2006-07, there were 107 schools on the list that students could transfer into for purposes of desegregation. These were schools that were racially imbalanced when the voluntary busing program started more than 20 years before, but within the reach of the goals — no more than 60 percent white or 75 percent black.

Some of the busing targets were predominantly black schools in integrated neighborhoods, such as C.W. Henry or Houston School in Mount Airy. In these cases, White students would be bused in to reach the 25 percent threshold.

But most of the desegregation target schools were predominantly White schools in the Northeast and parts of South Philadelphia and Roxborough. During this period of active busing, virtually all of the schools in these mostly White neighborhoods became racially integrated – aided in some cases by demographic changes among neighborhood residents. The overwhelming majority of parents who took advantage of the desegregation busing were African American.

By 2006-07, however, the demographics of many neighborhoods had changed considerably. And there were two other avenues for school choice — charters, and some transfers out of failing schools under No Child Behind. CEO Paul Vallas showed little interest in busing for desegregation; the numbers of students who took advantage of this option started to wane.

At some point during this period, the number of schools defined as suitable targets for desegration busing was slashed from 107 schools to 10. The District has said that these are the only schools where busing for desegregation still made sense, but the data don’t bear that out.

For instance, Bridesburg Elementary, a consistently high performing school that is the only District school still without a significant number of students of color, is only 1.1 percent African American. It is not on the list.

In the face of the severe budget crisis in 2006-07, Vallas pared back busing for desegregation to the 10 schools: AS Jenks, GAMP in South Philly ; Cook-Wissahickon and Dobson in Manayunk; Shawmont in Roxborough; AMY 5, Conwell, and MYA middle schools in Port Richmond, Kensington and West Philadelphia; and Hancock and Baldi in the Northeast. Only GAMP has high school grades.

According to the School District, about 1,540 students are bused now under the desegregation program, while more than 10,000 are bused to charter schools. Most of these 1,540 students are "grandfathered" from before the 2007 decision. The District says it is accepting new deseg applications for just these 10 schools, but could not provide a number.

With the decline of desegregation busing, at least a few schools in predominantly White neighborhoods have seen a marked change in the ethnic makeup of their enrollment. For instance, at Decatur School in the Far Northeast near Franklin Mills Mall, the African American population fell from 28.5 percent in 2005 to 12.1 percent today.

The stated goal of the deseg busing was desegregation, and I remember as an Inquirer reporter new to the education beat back in the ’80s being somewhat shocked that nobody was tracking whether the busing improved student achievement. District leaders — and the courts, for that matter — considered this irrelevant, at least then.

Today, however, student achievement has become the sole focus.

Thursday afternoon I caught up with Homer Floyd, the longtime executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission who amazingly has been involved with the case from the start. He said he was happy with the settlement because of promises to close the racial achievement gap between White and Asian compared to Black and Latino students.

"I’m very pleased with the agreement," he said. He praised Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for "establishing objectives that we were hoping for for a long time, that is closing the achievement gap, putting more resources into the low achieving schools, as well as getting to the extent possible the most effective teachers in those schools. Those are very important things."

Desegregation? With the White population down to about 13 percent, Floyd said, "chasing desegregation at this point doesn’t make the same amount of sense as trying to upgrade the schools. Quality education and equal educational opportunity are what we’re seeking. We’re hoping this agreement will lead the way to doing that."

As for charter schools, they certainly provide parents with more choices, and now they educate about one-sixth of the students who attend taxpayer-funded schools in the city. A recent Stanford University report studying charters in 16 states indicated that while 17 percent delivered better academic gains than traditional public schools, 37 percent of charters showed gains worse than traditional schools; 46 percent showed no significant difference.

Even so, it is clear that as a matter of national policy they are now at the center of urban education reform and reducing the achievement gap. President Obama wants to see states remove caps on charters and encourage educational innovation.