We Lost the School Fight Fifty Years Ago
Complain about critical race theory all you want. The regime has made clear that you don't get a say in education.
A radically progressive ideology is being imposed from the top down on American schoolchildren in a dangerous mix of ideological experiment and social engineering. A supposed interest in equality of outcomes is paradoxically paired with a widespread and avoidable decline in actual outcomes for just about everyone involved. Parents, fed up with their children’s use as pawns in the schemes of political actors with no real skin in the game, have started pushing back. Those parents’ pushback, at times, has gotten rowdy, commensurate with the enormity of the radicals’ senseless treatment of the children entrusted to their care. To get them back in line, local police and the federal leviathan are being mobilized to impose the will of national elites against the interests and over the objections of people on the ground.
It’s 1975 again.
The world of half a century ago is at once familiar and strangely distant. The federal Department of Education did not even exist yet, and would not until 1979. The post-’60s civil rights regime that now defines the educational landscape was still just taking hold and was, in fact, the impetus for that earlier and (as yet) more dramatic turmoil. Photos of the last crisis, for the most part, come to us in black and white—some of the last relics of a recent past made to seem, by the mode of its presentation, impossibly far removed from us in time.
In 1965, a new wave of liberal legislators displacing Massachusetts’ Democratic old guard had passed the Racial Imbalance Act, which mandated that any public school deemed racially imbalanced would be forcibly corrected by the government. Oddly, the law defined “racial imbalance” as any case in which “the percent of nonwhite students in any public school is in excess of fifty per cent of the total number of students in such school.” Besides ensuring that the white suburbs would not experience any blowback from the experiments to come, this very strange definition established as a standard for racial progress the imposition of a white majority in every public school within the Commonwealth.
Because people largely lived in close proximity to others of the same racial and ethnic identity—a not insubstantial portion of which was then attributable to the enduring effects of de jure segregation—and because the primary factor in public school assignment is geography, schools in predominantly black neighborhoods came nowhere near the white-majority requirement.
Under the leadership of populist firebrand Louise Day Hicks—a trailblazing lawyer and mother from a well-respected South Boston family—the Boston School Committee effectively ignored the new law, which could not have been enforced without massive, destructive upheavals in the functioning of the city’s communities. In 1974 the activist judge Wendell Arthur Garrity Jr., a suburbanite appointed by LBJ to the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, took it upon himself to reorganize the Boston school system, implementing a scheme of citywide forced busing first proposed by the statewide Board of Education.
The results were disastrous. Thousands of kids, black and white, simply didn’t go to school. Even among those who did, physical violence and other conflict broke out at alarming rates. Educational quality didn’t actually improve for anyone, white or black. (When the dust had settled in the ’90s, citywide standard test results were abysmal.) Rather than solve any of the very real problems in the city’s school system—majority-black schools, for instance, really were underfunded—Garrity’s power-grab just stacked dysfunction on top of dysfunction.
On top of the educational consequences—and perhaps more far-reaching—were the social ones. The compelled disjunction of children from their physical communities played no small part in the social unraveling from which those urban neighborhoods still have not recovered. Racial animosity ignited by the Garrity operation spilled over into the streets, with incidents of both white-on-black and black-on-white attacks directly traceable to the forced busing program.
Countless protests—not to mention dozens of riots—arrested the city in the ensuing years. Parents and community leaders did everything they could to express their opposition to the judicial reorganization of their children’s schools. Governor Sargent responded by calling in the National Guard. In 1975, there were five police officers for every four students in attendance at South Boston High School.
Those who could afford and bear to leave their longtime homes picked up and fled to the safety of the suburbs. By the end of the crisis, enrollment in the district had plummeted from 93,000 to just 57,000 students. Today, the vast majority of Boston’s public schools are a disaster, and neighborhoods that were vibrant just two generations ago now lie in near or total ruin.
All this—taught as a key chapter of local history when I was growing up in Massachusetts—has been on my mind lately as I’ve watched the recent dustups over race and gender ideology being pushed in public schools across the nation.
Though I don’t live in Virginia, I live close enough that the television ads for Virginia elections have been inescapable these last few months. Ten times a day for the last couple weeks—and mind you, I don’t watch much TV—I’ve been confronted with Terry McAuliffe’s ham-fisted remark that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” a blunder that transformed long-shot GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin practically overnight into a serious contender for the governorship of a major state that’s quickly turning blue.
McAuliffe’s answer was moronic, but more importantly it was entirely unsurprising. We already had the debate, decades ago, over whether the state or the parents should be the primary decision-maker in a child’s education. We lost. Where we are now—not just McAuliffe’s campaign, but the nationwide status quo of education in service of the regime’s ideology—is merely a predictable consequence of the battles of the 1970s, in which Goliath knocked David down and kicked him in the face, all the while denouncing him as a racist.
History repeats itself in interesting ways. The most prominent critics of the busing regime—most notably Hicks and the (later legendary) state legislator William Bulger—were city-dwellers themselves, and parents. Those pushing forced busing, meanwhile—Garrity, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, outgoing Governor Frank Sargent, former state legislator and incoming Governor Michael Dukakis—hailed from suburbs that were disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy, and almost entirely insulated from the repercussions of their own radical policies. McAuliffe, himself a keen supporter of educational progressivism, likewise made sure his own kids were safe from the consequences, sending all four to expensive private schools.
I’m certainly no opponent of private schooling, but skin in the game matters. It’s worth asking why the champions of these radical reforms never seem willing to subject their own children to them. But they’re perfectly happy to test things out on your children. In 2021 as in 1975, American children of all races are needlessly disadvantaged by the interventions of the Ted Kennedys and Terry McAuliffes of the world.
The difference is that 50 years ago you could just move out of the city, if you were willing to uproot yourself and your family. Now the new generation of limousine liberals are taking the fight from the cities to the suburbs, and anywhere else they have to. The further we retreat, the further they’ll advance. Eventually we’ll find ourselves with nowhere left to run.