In 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court approved, for the first time, a school integration plan for Charlotte–Mecklenburg that required mandatory busing of both black and white students to attain a relatively high degree of racial balance in nearly all schools. This watershed event led to similar racial integration plans throughout the South and in many larger school districts throughout the nation.
The era of mandatory busing generated great controversy and contributed to significant enrollment changes in the affected school districts, and many of these school districts became predominantly minority. No doubt some of the enrollment changes were due to preexisting demographic conditions and trends, but most experts agree that mandatory busing of students away from their neighborhood schools was a contributing factor.
These enrollment changes might have been easier to justify if they had led to significant reductions in the achievement gap. But whether forced school desegregation broadly has shrunk gaps is unclear due to difficulty isolating the effects of desegregation, while there is ample evidence that this did not happen in the controlled‐choice cases documented here or in other, specific school districts that underwent racial desegregation.26
It’s puzzling, therefore, that many proponents of school diversity policies still claim that economic integration (using controlled‐choice policies) will succeed in closing the achievement gap. Of course, the review here has by no means evaluated economic integration in all school districts where it has been tried. For example, we have not reviewed some of the smaller school districts where the policy has been implemented without the higher‐income enrollment losses documented above. Controlled choice for economic integration is still in use in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a smaller school district with about 6,000 students, where the policy is not controversial. Perhaps size is a critical factor, and controlled choice might be more feasible in smaller, more homogeneous school districts.
For larger school districts, however, it is clear from the cases reviewed here that controlled choice for economic integration is not working as intended. It is still controversial, and it may be contributing to growing racial and economic isolation among some larger school districts. Most importantly, this policy has not been successful at achieving one of its major goals: closing achievement gaps.
To be clear, I do not oppose voluntary economic integration programs, where both low‐ and higher‐income parents may come together in a magnet school or another school of choice. Indeed, there is some evidence that the court‐ordered racial desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s improved some longer‐term outcomes, such as college attendance or reduced rates of crime.27 These benefits must be evaluated against the negative effects of massive mandatory busing, which may have worsened racial isolation in the long run.
A voluntary approach, where students attend because of a mutual interest in a specific academic program or because they desire to experience ethnic or economic diversity, might yield some of the benefits of integration without the negative side effects. Indeed, my support of voluntary integration programs leads me to be skeptical of mandatory models, whose counterproductive demographic effects can reduce the opportunities for those who desire the potential social benefits of a voluntary integration program. In my opinion, integration cannot succeed where diversity is imposed from the top down, rather than being embraced by the very participants who are needed to make it work.