Neighborhood Schools

By Robert Lowe

When I was a child, I attended Lincoln School. It was one of those sturdy, red brick, vaguely colonial affairs that stood almost unobtrusively amid the large homes of affluent suburbia. Lincoln was neither especially intimidating nor inviting, but it was a neighborhood school. It lacked a cafeteria not because of limited funds but because all the children walked home for lunch every day. During the cold months, kids plied its skating rink before school, during “gym,” following dismissal, and after dinner. During warm weather, children scrambled over the playing fields until dark. Perfect attendance was automatic at parent-teacher conferences and science fairs, and the gymnasium was filled for meetings of the cub scout pack and cultural events.

Perhaps nostalgia for such experiences partly fuels the push to re-create neighborhood schools in cities throughout the country. Media and policymaker wisdom contrasts the “natural” geography of education, which integrates school and community in neighborhood institutions, with the “unnatural,” community-fragmenting consequences of busing. By removing costly transportation requirements mandated by what is viewed as an intrusive government, it is assumed that neighborhood schools will flourish as centers of educational excellence. Yet a policy of returning education to local schools suggests historical amnesia about both neighborhood schools and busing, and threatens to increase racial inequality in education.

Historian Carl Kaestle traces “the staunchly defended American tradition of neighborhood schools” to the 18th century.1 In rural America, these schools for white children belonged to and reflected the culture of the surrounding community. They also typically were ill-funded affairs that housed a multitude of students in miserable one-room buildings where untrained teachers presided. A tradition of scrappy, parochial-minded schools in the countryside survived into the 20th century, when greater professional training of teachers and the consolidation of schools provided expanded educational opportunities to students. Consolidation, however, spelled the end of neighborhood schools for many. Though rural communities initially resisted this change, busing became an uncontroversial way of transporting white children to improved institutions. In contrast, a failure to provide busing to African-American children in the South often meant that education beyond the earliest grades was denied them.

The greater population density of cities ensured the long-term survival of urban neighborhood schools, but their uneven quality reflected the unequal distribution of power between neighborhoods differentiated by class and race. In the 1960s and 1970s, the fiercest resistance to busing for school integration often came from ethnic, working-class areas like South Boston and the northwest side of Chicago, where loyalty to neighborhood schools certainly was not based on their putative excellence.

High quality simply never was the hallmark of neighborhood schools in general, but segregation was. What my suburban school had in common with neighborhood schools in cities and rural areas was its racial exclusivity. Similarly, the current nationwide effort to restore neighborhood schools has little basis for promising excellent schools, but it can and will deliver racially separate ones. This is the unstated attraction for many of the white policymakers who propose an agenda that will close the era of Brown v. Board of Education. If glorifying neighborhood schools partly sanitizes this sea change in educational policy, so too does the way busing is represented.


Plans to abandon public transportation to promote desegregation most universally are framed as ending “forced busing.” This phrase is one of those curious word combinations – like “critical thinking” or “authentic assessment” or “school choice” – that carries a built-in opinion about the value of what is being described. “Forced busing” obviously is something bad, and its widespread use suggests satisfaction with the movement to end it. In addition, the phrase assumes an illegitimate use of government power – one that denies the freedom to attend neighborhood schools and coerces attendance elsewhere. Yet exactly who has been coerced is a question that often gets finessed. During the 1972 presidential campaign, the white voters attracted to George Wallace certainly knew the answer when he colorfully and consistently denounced busing as “social scheming” by “anthropologists, zoologists, and sociologists.”2 The fundamental problem with mandatory busing was that it interfered with what many whites perceived as their right to separate schools – either by requiring them to bus out of their neighborhood schools or by permitting Blacks to bus in. Busing was not required by the Supreme Court until 16 years of experience beyond Brown v. Board of Education made it clear that white resistance to desegregation in many cities would perpetually confine African Americans to separate schools.

The notion that neighborhood schools are somehow innocent of government power is also patently false. In northern cities, school district authorities’ willful gerrymandering of attendance areas produced segregation where the location of schools naturally would have yielded integration. Moreover, there was nothing “natural” about suburban schools like mine. They were shaped by federal decisions to build highways rather than urban infrastructure and to support racially homogenous enclaves through the mortgage policy of the Federal Housing Authority.


Historical amnesia is not the only reason opposition to busing was once broadly identified with racism but is now widely perceived as promoting the common good. Another reason is that the courts now legitimate such a perspective. An activist federal judiciary that once struck down legally enforced segregation and ultimately struck down ineffectual desegregation plans now significantly bears the influence of conservative Reagan and Bush appointees. These transformed federal courts have been declaring unitary those school districts that had been under desegregation orders. Neither existing segregation nor grave racial disparities in student performance have deterred the courts from releasing urban districts from their oversight. Relatedly, there are many cities where whites hold political power but the school systems enroll mostly students of color. The legal climate is ideal for them to restore neighborhood public schools in the hope of attracting whites with the implicit promise of racial exclusivity. Furthermore, what Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton refer to as “dismantling desegregation” simply is not evoking much protest or even contention. 3

This is a far cry from the mid-1950s when African Americans in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and other southern towns risked their jobs – and lost them – for petitioning for desegregated schools. It is distant as well from the mid-1960s when massive demonstration sand boycotts hit Chicago, Milwaukee, New York City, and other cities to protest the failure of school districts to desegregate. The basic explanation for the lack of organized opposition tore segregation, of course, is that desegregation hardly has been an unqualified success for African Americans. Put simply, it has been implemented on terms favorable to whites, and even privileged treatment has not been sufficient to keep many whites from choosing private schools or from moving to the suburbs. For some African-American students, their disproportionate burden of busing has been compensated by access to resources and opportunities unavailable in neighborhood schools. For others, however, it has meant either busing to poor quality and nearly segregated schools far from home or traveling to schools internally segregated by tracking that provide challenging curricula almost exclusively to white students.


Certainly, the failure to achieve or preserve racially balanced schools in many districts, and the failure to treat African-American students equally in others, casts doubt on unequivocally continuing a policy of busing for the purpose of promoting desegregated schools. Depending on the context, in fact, African Americans over the past 200 years have sought equal education by alternately pursuing desegregation and separate-but-equal schools. Beginning in the late 1960s, for example, many African Americans sought community control of their schools out of frustration with the slow pace of desegregation and out of anger at the hostile treatment of many Black students in predominantly white schools. Three decades earlier, W. E. B. Du Bois backed away from his previous insistence on desegregation in an often-quoted passage that tactically supported separate schools:

The Negro needs neither separate nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic either in mixed schools or segregated schools. A mixed school with poor unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of the truth concerning black folk is bad. A segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate equipment, poor salaries is equally bad. Other things being equal the mixed school is the broader more natural basis for the education of all youth. It gives wider contacts; it inspires greater self-confidence and suppresses the inferiority complex. But other things seldom are equal, and in that case, Sympathy, Knowledge, and the Truth outweigh all that the mixed school can offer. 4

The parents of color whose children attend urban schools today should collectively have the authority to decide whether either or both strategies for equal education should be pursued. The policy of re-creating mere neighborhood schools, however, is fundamentally a white initiative. Unless a return to neighborhood schools includes control by the neighborhood and guarantees adequate resources, it threatens to create institutions that are worse than those of the pre-Brown South. It would reproduce the separate-but-unequally funded schools of the Jim Crow era without providing the community-connected, all-Black staffs who often committed themselves to developing students’ “highest potential.” 5


1 Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), p.27.

2 Wayne Greenshaw, Watch Out for George Wallace (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 40.

3 Gary Orfield and Susan E. Eaton, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (New York: TheNew Press, 1996).

4 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” Journal of Negro Education 4 (July 1935): 335.

5 See Vanessa Siddle Walker, Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

Robert Lowe, a former editor of Rethinking Schools, is a professor of education at Marquette University.