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Busing in Denver was neither easy nor calm

ROSH HASHANAH EDITION 5781
SECTION D PAGE 12

One is tempted at first glance to think that Phil Goodstein might have chosen to use a touch of hyperbole in titling his latest book, The Denver School Busing Wars, but the author wastes little time demonstrating otherwise.

Those who were in Denver during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s know that the word “war” is not an exaggeration when it comes to school busing, an issue that divided the city and whose reverberations are still felt today.

Following the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which paved the way for school racial integration, and the 1966 release of the Coleman Report, a federally funded study which added great impetus to the idea that busing was the best way to achieve that, Denver Public Schools joined school districts nationwide in debating how — and whether — to give busing a try.

The stage, of course, had been set well before that. Although Denver, unlike many districts in other regions, especially the South, had never adopted a formal policy of segregating students by race, it had practiced de facto segregation for decades.< Using what Goodstein calls an educational version of “gerrymandering,” DPS kept schools mostly white or mostly black primarily through attendance boundaries. Schools in mostly black neighborhoods also tended to be housed in older structures in bad shape, and were obliged to use hand-me-down, outdated textbooks from primarily white schools. These were among the other inequities that added fuel to the fire. Busing wasn’t an easy or peaceful decision, as this book — the second in Goodstein’s trilogy of histories of Denver schools — explains in considerable detail. As proponents and opponents of busing formed battle lines, passions and tempers grew. It took several years and a labyrinth of court cases leading to the US Supreme Court, contentious school board elections and scores of public debates over such ideas as “educational parks” (central school campuses that were proposed as one of many alternatives to busing) before DPS actually began busing students in 1969. And that was only the beginning of the tumult. The busing era in Denver dawned under a US court order, despite the fact that the DPS board had already rejected busing, and there was considerable resentment over the federal intervention. Administrators at some Denver schools, particularly those in white areas, pushed back, refusing to accommodate the pleas of bused black students that the rules were too tough, that they were unprepared for study plans considerably more rigorous than what they were used to, and that their cultural differences were not taken into consideration or respected. Neither Denver’s black nor white communities were monolithic on the idea of sending their children across town to attend school. Significant portions of both — parents and activists alike — lined up on either side of the debate. School board members engaged in sustained disputes and wrestled for majorities in an effort to proceed with, or ban, the whole idea. Students themselves actually came to blows more than once, with black and white kids fighting each other, and sometimes police, after walkouts turned violent. The worst scenes took place at South and George Washington High Schools; the latter was forced to close for more than a week in 1970 after the situation grew out of control. Arguably worse than this, public anger over busing in Denver resulted in violence that bordered on domestic terrorism. Several school board members had their homes bombed or set afire. In one striking instance, nearly a third of Denver’s fleet of school buses were destroyed by a bomb planted in their storage yard, a crime for which no suspect was ever charged. [dropcap]Goodstein[/dropcap] concludes that busing ultimately achieved none of its worthy, if misguided, goals at DPS. More than three decades after it began, it hadn’t raised student performance levels or graduation rates, or brought harmony between students of different racial backgrounds. It did, however, seriously damage the reputation of the Denver public school system. From 1969 to 1979, enrollment at DPS dropped from nearly 100,000 to 63,225, a decline that Goodstein attributes primarily to busing. Part of that dynamic resulted from white flight into the suburbs, he writes, and part can be attributed to parents choosing private education over public as the level of learning, and tranquility, faded in public schools. The rise in popularity in Denver Jewish day schools during the 1970s and ‘80s, the author asserts, can largely be traced to Jewish unease over the tensions that busing brought into Denver’s public schools. While many Denver Jews were active supporters of busing in its early stages, their disillusionment with the idea gradually rose in tandem with many liberal Denverites who came to doubt the wisdom of the idea. By 1995, when federal courts finally released DPS from its mandate to bus students, very little enthusiasm remained for busing in Denver, or, for that matter, in many other cities which shared Denver’s traumatic experience. In the 21st century, school choice has become the new mantra, with charter and magnet schools replacing such social engineering efforts as busing and educational parks. Now, like then, the goals are noble — to enhance integration, achieve scholastic parity between racial and income groups and improve educational outcomes. What educators have hopefully learned in the intervening decades is that aspiring to such ambitious goals is much easier said than done Overcoming the toxic effects of something as pervasive and deep-rooted as racism and racial mistrust remains an elusive and complicated problem, as such recent movements as Black Lives Matter dramatically demonstrate. The Denver School Busing Wars — exhaustively researched, well-organized, often passionately argued — helps us better understand the mistakes of the past and their consequences. Ideally, that will realize the highest aspiration of history, which is to help us avoid repeating those mistakes.

Chris Leppek may be reached at [email protected]

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