Thirty years after buses first moved city kids into suburban schools and suburban kids into the city, some worry Wilmington is lapsing into re-segregation.
Photograph by Tom Nutter
Busing came to New Castle County in September 1978 and forever changed the landscape of public education. The action aimed to foster diversity in public schools. But three decades later, some say we’re back to where we started.
“We have in the city of Wilmington almost resegregated schools,” says outgoing Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff.
District Court Judge Murray Schwartz’s decision 30 years ago required students from Wilmington to spend nine of 12 basic years in suburban schools and suburban students to spend three in city schools while creating an 80-20 while-black balance in all schools.
The hope was that underachieving students from poor city schools would perform better at predominantly white schools.
“But there was so much white flight that it soon became about 40 percent black and 60 percent white across the countywide district,” says Raymond Wolters, University of Delaware history professor and author of the book “Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation.”
Though the aim may have been noble, evidence suggests neither blacks nor whites benefited greatly from the move. Scores among black students on standardized tests fell while dropout rates climbed.
“Schools have never regained their former level of quality,” Wolters says. “Practically everybody now realizes that busing for racial balance was a momentous wrong turn. In fact, it was a colossal failure.”
Josephy Brumskill, a Brandywine School District board member and a longtime warrior for racial equality in Wilmington’s public schools, says diversity is imperative in public education. Though he believes in integration, Brumskill says Schwartz’ busing legislation failed because black students and teachers simply weren’t accepted at mostly white schools.
“Schwartz had a good idea, but it didn’t work,” he says. “It wasn’t the bus ride itself. It was what students confronted when they got off the bus.”
In 1995 a federal court decided racial balance had been achieved and lifted busing laws. Yet since busing began, the two traditional high schools in Wilmington had either been closed or repurposed. As a result, many district feeder patterns remain as they were during court-ordered busing.
In 2000 the General Assembly passed the Neighborhood Schools Act, which mandated students attend the schools closest to their homes. But by then, school choice, open enrollment, and the proliferation of charter and vo-tech schools had given parents more options. The resulting racial makeup points to resegregation in New Castle County.
“There are some of us who are concerned with that, and there are some that are not,” Woodruff says. “I can see the advantages of having a neighborhood school—kids live together, grow up together, family involvement, community support. But all the family involvement and community support doesn’t come unless the school and the community and the families can come together.”
About a quarter of students in Red Clay, Christiana, Brandywine and Colonial school districts attend predominately white or predominately minority schools. Six out of 17 area charter schools serve a high percentage of black students. And though minority students have made strides in closing the so-called achievement gap, research shows mostly minority schools made up of lower income kids still lag.
Do the advantages of neighborhood schools outweigh the value of diversity? It seems choice is in the hands of the parents.
“Parents want their kids to go to a particular school for many reasons,” Woodruff says. “And we are past the point that racial ratio is high up on the importance scale.” —Matt Amis