Joe Biden’s efforts against federal involvement in school busing were discussed at the Democratic debate like some kind of unearthed policy of the past. But language that mostly bars the use of federal funds for transportation costs related to desegregation efforts is still on the books, as Politico recently reported.
It’s a vestige of the 1970s, when Biden was fighting mandates or court orders for busing, although it’s not clear if he had a hand in this particular provision.
Biden defended his opposition Thursday night by saying busing should be a local decision.
The federal government does not pay for most school transportation, but the provision makes extra sure.
Section 426 of the General Education Provisions Act is pretty clear. It reads:
Prohibition Against Use of Appropriated Funds for Busing
No funds appropriated for any applicable program may be used for the transportation of students or teachers (or the purchase of equipment for such transportation) to overcome a racial imbalance in any school or school system or to carry out a plan of racial desegregation, except for funds appropriated for the Impact Aid program authorized by Title VIII of the ESEA.7
There have been some exceptions to the ban, but it is largely still in effect.
Rep. Bobby Scott, the Virginia Democrat who’s the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, is looking for a Republican cosponsor for legislation to repeal that provision, according to a Democratic aide. There’s some reason to think he could find one. For the first time since 1974, similar language was left out of the education appropriations bill passed in 2018. But it would have to be changed in the larger law as well.
Since most transportation is funded at the local level, the practical effect of the change would not be huge, but it would certainly have a symbolic effect.
Scott is making the effective desegregation of schools a priority of his chairmanship. He’s pushing a bill to give more federal help to states and local authorities to make it happen.
Scott, however, did not think the issue should disqualify Biden when he was asked about it in May.
“We’re voting today and what position someone had 40 years ago I don’t think should be dispositive,” Scott said. “You can consider it, I think we’re voting today and the issue would be what are the issues and what are the positions that he’ll take going forward, not looking forward,” Scott told The Hill.
Sixty-five years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, US schools are not officially segregated but they remain largely unequal and split, often along racial lines even as more and more US students are minorities.
The GAO reported in 2016that the problem of segregation in schools is paired with economic disparity and is getting worse. It found that new efforts — like the creation of magnet schools — by local school districts have faced challenges. The magnet schools did well, but the regular schools got worse.
Underneath the difficult conversation Democrats are having about Biden’s past opposition to federally mandated school busing is a deeper conversation about race.
The country continues to struggle with how to educate all of its children. There are very real but slowly shrinking achievement gaps between black and Latino students and their white peers.
It’s a nationwide issue.
- California, where Harris was bused to a school outside her neighborhood, still has some of the worst school segregation, according to a 2014 UCLA study.
- The New York Times recently profiled the struggle to integrate the city’s public schools after less than 1% of the 895 slots at one of New York’s most selective high schools were offered to black students.
- “This American Life” aired a must-listen piece in 2015 about modern-day busing efforts in Missouri and how they affected a girl who was first bused and then forced out of the school she was bused to.
But forced busing for integration is not as widespread as it was when Biden was fighting federal involvement in it.
What’s driving the segregation debate today is school choice and how to regulate things like charter schools, which seek public dollars and offer choice but aren’t required to serve every child.
The questions about Biden and busing are an opportunity to pivot to a debate about how to better serve all kids today.