The Wake County Board of Education is considering significantly modifying one of the largest remaining efforts at school busing for diversity — in this case, economic diversity, given that busing for racial diversity has been overturned legally.
Opponents of the planned change charge that this represents a return to segregation, but reading about the motivations of those pushing to reduce busing suggest it’s more a question of individual versus collective good.
When Rosemarie Wilson moved her family to a wealthy suburb of Raleigh a couple of years ago, the biggest attraction was the prestige of the local public schools. Then she started talking to neighbors.
Don’t believe the hype, they warned. Many were considering private schools. All pointed to an unusual desegregation policy, begun in 2000, in which some children from wealthy neighborhoods were bused to schools in poorer areas, and vice versa, to create economically diverse classrooms.
“Children from the 450 houses in our subdivision were being bused all across the city,” said Ms. Wilson, for whom the final affront was a proposal by the Wake County Board of Education to send her two daughters to schools 17 miles from home.
Now, it’s possible to read all sorts of dark racist or classist motives into these kind of conflicts, but it strikes me that the real difficult here is in reconciling private and public goods.
There is a clear logic to the idea that if a school has a highly diverse student body in terms of wealth, race, background and academic ability, the most stake of the more fortunate and more able in the school’s overall success will result in the entire group being pulled up.
However, at the same time, it is utterly and completely reasonable that a parent, given the choice of two schools — one with better teachers and less crime than the other — would pick the better school for his children.
Now, in a situation in which the community is small or mobility is low, it may be that there’s really only one possible school to choose. In that case, people find themselves in the same boat by necessity and those will the means to do so will exert themselves in order to improve the school. However, in a mass society with a high mobility, a parent is faced with a very different situation: Moving to a neighborhood with better schools (or opting out of the public school system in favor of private schooling or homeschooling) can make a very big difference in the future of his own children, while the removal of just one more affluent and more academically able student from a school composed of hundred will be of no measurable detriment to the more disadvantaged students. And yet, if all of the parents with more money or more concern about academics remove their children from a struggling school, the school will not only do worse on average (having removed the upper end of the curve) but may even serve the poorer and underachieving students worse than before, since they will now lack the resources and influence of the higher-achieving students who left.
Government can try to force students into undesirable schools in order that they may exert some sort of upwards pressure on them, but since efforts will naturally be resented and resisted since parents naturally want the best for their children.
There is no obvious trade-off which helps everybody.