Boston busing in 1974 was about race. Now the issue is class.

Nearly 50 years ago, a landmark federal court decision found the Boston School Committee had illegally perpetuated segregation and allocated lower funding in predominantly Black neighborhoods. It ordered racial rebalancing of white and Black students through busing.

The ruling by Judge W. Arthur Garrity on June 21, 1974, ignited racial violence and bitter protests from mostly working-class whites who resisted complying and sparked fears in both white and Black neighborhoods over the safety of their children. The tumultuous era tore apart Boston and left an indelible stain on the city’s reputation.

There is widespread agreement that the results of this attempt to achieve more equal educational opportunity were mixed at best. And a new report by a state education oversight panel finds that a majority of public schools in Massachusetts remain segregated.

The Gazette spoke with Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Paul Reville about Boston’s busing crisis and what has improved — and what hasn’t — over the past half-century. An expert on school reform, Reville was secretary of education in Massachusetts from 2008-2013 and is now the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at HGSE. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Paul Reville.

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

While well-intentioned, busing didn’t yield the kind of student gains Judge Garrity and others likely thought it would. Was this experiment doomed to fail from the start, or an idea with potential that was derailed by racial and class politics?

The decision Judge Garrity made to bus students in Boston was his answer to the blatant discrimination against racial minorities promulgated by the Boston School Committee. When that school board failed to come up with an acceptable plan for integration, Garrity imposed a court-designed plan on the school system.

People in Boston, then as now, felt like they were entitled to have good, safe, nearby schools in their neighborhoods. For many parents, Black and white, the idea of busing their children to a far-away, possibly unsafe school was outrageous.

The court order was seen by many as not only a misguided technical solution to a much larger problem, but also as an imposition by affluent, white liberals on vulnerable urban neighborhoods. Many Black parents in Boston had painfully endured decades of discrimination by the school system, and they wanted a remedy. At the same time, they feared for the safety of their children who were being bused into sometimes hostile neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs had sought a ruling that would prevent the discrimination against and isolation of racial minorities. The court concluded that the only way to accomplish this was to force the integration of each school so that no particular school could be identified for discrimination. If there were Black and white children in every school, then the system would be forced to treat them all equally in terms of policy and budget.

That was a logical and well-intentioned strategy, but the court did not anticipate the degree of resistance forced busing would generate, nor the degree to which forced busing would trigger white and middle-class flight from Boston’s public schools.

What has changed for the better and what hasn’t since 1974?

The demographics in the U.S. and in public education, in particular, have changed dramatically. Students left the Boston Public Schools in droves. While initial enrollment declines were attributable to the court decision, larger demographic and societal changes compounded the effect.

85% Of those attending Boston Public Schools today are students of color

Current enrollment is now roughly half of what it was in the early 1970s. Students of color are now more racially isolated in Boston public schools than ever before. Currently, BPS has roughly 85 percent students of color, whereas white students were in the majority [57 percent] when busing began. To have an integrated student body in every school, given current demographics, is virtually impossible. On the other hand, we now have a more equitable distribution of budget and resources between schools.

Many factors at play during this era have changed: People of color are now the majority population in Boston; the school committee is not as politically powerful as it once was; and the last two mayors and the current Massachusetts secretary of education are people of color. And yet, Boston’s public schools are about average compared to other large U.S. cities. Should we be seeing better results?

Boston has strong leadership now, an effective mayor and an experienced superintendent presiding over a challenged school system. The challenges are huge: You’ve got declining enrollment, increased absenteeism, and spiraling mental health and behavioral problems.

Although student attendance appears to be increasing somewhat, you still have something like a quarter of students chronically absent. No amount of school improvement is going to raise your scores if high percentages of young people are absent from school on a regular basis.

It’s much more a matter of socioeconomics than race. Educational achievement and attainment are closely associated with class. Boston is now a much less socio-economically diverse school district than it was before.

Socioeconomic flight from the district to private, parochial, and suburban schools, even to charter schools, has drawn down enrollment and left the system with much more concentrated poverty.

The cost of housing has driven a lot of middle-class people out of the city. The hollowing out of that middle means that the school system is now serving many more children with profound special needs, more multilingual learners, and students from low-income backgrounds. These factors make it much more complicated and difficult to educate all children to higher levels.

Boston, like a lot of cities, has got major challenges in dealing with the circumstances in children’s lives outside of school. Children are in school for only 20 percent of their waking hours between kindergarten and grade 12. So, school is a fairly weak intervention in terms of changing the prospects and opportunities available to young people.

“The school-choice system sometimes seems to amount to little more than an expensive game of musical chairs. Somebody always loses out.”

Whenever you have concentrated poverty, irrespective of race, it diminishes the chances for young people moving forward. Folks like Harvard economist Raj Chetty have done a lot of research on the importance of social class and social class interaction for social and economic mobility. That matters a lot.

What still needs to be done?

The school-choice system has not worked very effectively. It sometimes seems to amount to little more than an expensive game of musical chairs with a limited number of high-quality educational opportunities. Somebody always loses out in that kind of a game.

I think we should move back to neighborhood schools. Until recently, you could barely mention the idea of having a “neighborhood school” because that term became so fraught during the busing days. But the concept is worth reviving.

We desperately need high school reform. There must be school-to-career pathways and early college options in all those high schools. There’s some good work going on in Boston on “hub schools” — full-service community schools — which I applaud. This movement addresses some of the out-of-school factors that become impediments for many children. We need a “children’s cabinet” to oversee and expand this work.

We desperately need, and are now beginning to see, improvements in Boston’s school buildings. This administration has committed significant capital funding and is moving ahead in spite of some predictable setbacks and controversies.

We are stuck with a framework where school lines are drawn along municipal lines. Increasingly, in the U.S., people are segregating on the basis of income. That sort of segregation is as difficult to overcome as racial segregation has been in the past. Students in schools with high concentrations of poverty have a much more difficult time achieving and moving up than students in more integrated schools. To the degree that we can get affordable, mixed-income housing, Boston will have a more integrated school system. But that takes time.

What did school administrators, policymakers, and scholars learn from this period? Has anything positive come from it?

Yes, I think a couple of things. On the one hand, it was obviously right for the court to demand that the Boston School Committee treat all of its students equitably. That had to happen. On the other hand, we learned that you can’t have a successful, externally imposed remedy if people who are on the receiving end had no role in designing the remedy.

“Ultimately, we should be striving to have a quality school in every neighborhood.”

Those who bear the full brunt of the strategy are going to demand changes when the remedy threatens their children’s safety. If those changes are not forthcoming, those who can will leave. In the end, busing was not a successful remedy for racial segregation even if it did fix some aspects of a biased system.

We still have a long way to go. The school-choice program we have now is another well-intentioned attempt to achieve integration on a voluntary basis. That is a step in the right direction, but one with serious problems. We should be worrying less about achieving the perfect balance in all schools based on racial or ethnic demographics and be more concerned about socioeconomic integration.

Ultimately, we should be striving to have a quality school in every neighborhood, a school tailored to meet the needs of those particular children, giving them what they require to be successful both inside and outside of school. This should be part of a much larger city-wide social contract which guarantees every neighborhood the preconditions which will allow residents to flourish.

This is no simple matter given demographic trends, the history and politics of achieving equity, and the cost of housing in Boston, but it’s the best way forward.

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