The Desegregation Bus on its Last Fumes
When St. Louis’s busing plan finally ends, will resegregation follow?
by Aidan Taylor
Abdul-Kaba Abdullah was just six years old in 1984 when the school bus came to his grandmother’s house in St. Louis City’s Walnut Park neighborhood. Instead of taking him to the school down the street, it took him 25 miles away to Beasley Elementary School in South County at 3131 Koch Road (an address Abdullah remembers to this day). The small yellow bus picked up 14 Black kids one by one around the city to take them to their new elementary school. Every child gets nervous on the first day of school, but imagine being a Black kid bused to a majority-white school. On top of that, on that first day, the bus was late. When it finally pulled up to the school, Abdullah got out and headed to his first class of the day.
After standing outside the classroom terrified for three or four minutes, but what he said felt like forever, he went inside and was greeted by the smiling face of his teacher. It was the beginning of a long stretch of support he would receive during his education. “That is my very first memory there, so I remember it very vividly,” he said.
Now, almost 40 years later, Abdullah is the executive director for Park Central Development, a community development corporation in St. Louis City. The corporation helps build up neighborhoods, create commercial districts like the popular area known as The Grove, and foster community and economic development. Abdullah carries out all this work with community input — while trying to ensure that people aren’t displaced from the neighborhood.
He attributes his position and the success he’s had to the desegregation program: “It exposed me to something that was not just the neighborhoods that I lived in, and it gave me a larger view of what the world could be.” Unbeknownst to Abdullah at that time, he was in one of the first classes in what would turn into one of the largest and longest-running desegregation busing programs in the country. And one which, 40 years later, is finally set to conclude.
The desegregation busing program in St. Louis was meant to remedy the unequal access to good education caused by the city’s racial segregation problem—a longstanding situation that remained unfixed even after the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), ruled it was illegal. Before Brown, the United States was beset by Jim Crow laws that separated Black and White citizens, both in public settings and in schools, and were used to maintain white supremacy in the South.
These rules had been set in stone in 1896 by the Supreme Court Case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld “separate but equal” laws across the country. In the 1950s, the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to challenge these laws by supporting individuals across the country who had filed cases to fight school segregation. One of those cases was that of Oliver Brown, who sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1951 after his daughter, 8-year-old Linda Carol Brown, was not allowed to attend the all-white school in her neighborhood, and had to travel further to the all-Black school.
The NAACP’s main argument was that this was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, because the racially separate schools were not equal. The district courts originally ruled against them, but the case was then consolidated with similar cases in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., and appealed to the Supreme Court.
Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer for the NAACP, represented the plaintiffs and argued using psychological evidence of the negative effects of segregation on young children. The defense claimed that the segregated all-Black schools were either already equal or would be made equal to the white schools.
“The only thing segregation can be is an inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible, and now is the time, we submit, that this Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for,” Marshall said in one of his arguments.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown and the NAACP, Chief Justice Earl Warren declaring that segregation was “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional.
A year later, a second Supreme Court case known as Brown II laid the groundwork for how to go about desegregating. The NAACP argued for quick implementation while many Southern states thought that sudden change would lead to violence and upheaval. The Supreme Court ended up delegating the task of desegregation to district courts and directed that segregation be ended “with all deliberate speed.”
One of the remedies for segregation was busing, introduced in the Supreme Court court case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971. In 1968 13 years after Brown II, in Charlotte, North Carolina, 99% of African American students attended 21 racially segregated schools. Segregation brought on by school zoning and other factors was still alive and well there and across the country. The Swanns, a family with a six-year-old son named James, sued the school district to allow James to attend one of the few integrated elementary schools close to them. The case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, was combined with nine other families who were all represented by Julius Chambers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The federal district judge ruled in favor of the Swanns and after being appealed to the supreme court in 1971, they upheld his decision.
Swanns was the last unanimous decision by the court in a school desegregation case. It established busing as a tool federal courts could use to integrate schools. The court found that while it was not a perfect solution, busing would allow Black students to receive better education while making schools better reflect a district’s racial composition.
The busing program in Charlotte spread to other states across the country as well, and Charlotte became the poster child for a successful desegregation program. Other cities like Boston and Dallas garnered national attention when opposition to the forced busing programs turned violent. In Boston, for example, the implementation of busing in 1974 led to over 40 riots, 149 arrests, and over 129 injuries, according to Jack Tager’s, Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence. J. Anthony Lukas’ award-winning Common Ground riveted the nation by chronicling the lives of three families involved in the program. Many of these programs peaked in the 80s and 90s and have since ended—with most school districts ending up just as segregated as before busing.
In St. Louis, the story began a bit differently. In 1972 Minnie Riddell and other families sued the St. Louis School Board because they were displeased with the dilapidated and crowded schools of North St. Louis. A settlement reached in 1983 called for “the voluntary transfer of thousands of Black students from the city to the county, the creation of magnet schools within St. Louis Public Schools to attract white students from the county, and state funding to improve the neighborhood schools in the city,” according to an article in St. Louis Today. A preliminary goal was for suburban districts to get a 15% increase in African American students; the ultimate goal was 25%.
The desegregation plan was simple: it would bus Black students who live in St. Louis City from their homes to predominantly white public schools in the county and vice versa with white students in the county also bused to magnet schools, public schools that focus on special fields of study, in the city.
The program differed from other desegregation busing programs across the country in that it was always 100% voluntary. No student was forced or required to be bused somewhere, it was all by choice. A lot of the violence in other cities was partly brought on by the forced busing of students which the program in St. Louis just did not have.
But the program is finally winding down, with no students being accepted after the 2023-24 school year. The main reason is money.
When it began in 1983, the program was run and funded by the state. However, after many years, the financial burden of paying for the student transfer on the state grew. An entity called the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC) was created to run the program. In the late 90s, Missouri’s attorney general declared that the negative effects of segregation had been compensated for and the program was ready to end, according to the current interim head of VICC, Bruce Ellerman. The motion was turned down by the court but 16 years after the program’s start, in 1999, a new settlement agreement was reached to wind down the program. The districts and the Department of Education and the Justice Department sat down to discuss the best way to do that.
“We all got together and we were able to work out a settlement that nobody loved, but everybody could live with,” Ellerman said. The program was expected to end in ten years, gradually winding down by 2009. After being extended a few times by the VICC board, it is now on its last legs with no new applicants after the 2023-2024 school year. All students currently in the program will continue to be bused until they graduate.
This program is similar to some of the other busing programs across the country, both past and present. While some of them are one way with only Black city students attending suburban schools, some have smaller magnet schools in the city for suburban students.
According to the National Coalition on School Diversity, in addition to St. Louis, four other current busing programs remain. These are in Boston, MA, Hartford, CT, Rochester, NY and in East Palo Alto, CA. These programs were either started by state court order or through legislation. Some of them admit students through a lottery or are chosen to be eligible by the organization overseeing it. In St. Louis, VICC reaches out to eligible families annually while in Boston there is little to no reaching out.
Of the other major busing programs similar to St. Louis insofar as they were ordered by federal courts, two ended recently in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Indianapolis court-ordered program ended in 2016 after running since 1981, but “Indianapolis Public Schools elementary buildings are more segregated today than they were when the busing program began in 1981,” writes Shaina Cavazos in The Atlantic. Unlike the busing in St. Louis, busing in Indianapolis was forced and there were no white children ordered to go into the city public schools.
In Milwaukee, the program closed to new participants in 2015, 40 years after its inception in 1975. While the program wasn’t as large as the one that in St. Louis, white students were able to be bused from the suburbs to city magnet schools and the program was voluntary. One thing that led to the demise of this program that’s not in St. Louis is the Open Enrollment program. Open Enrollment was created in 1998 and allows students to transfer to a school in any district. It’s a student choice program with no integration requirement. It’s harder for poor families to participate and most participants are white, according to WUWM, the National Public Radio station in Milwaukee. And it’s less accessible to poor families because it does not provide busing. Most students using Open Enrollment are white. Unfortunately, as in Indianapolis, public schools are back to being segregated like before with 11% of city schools being almost all white, according to WUWM.
In Ellerman’s eyes, one of the biggest challenges the VICC program has faced has been transportation—cost and logistics. Not only is it expensive to bus students from the city to the county but it is also hard to figure out the appropriate routes and which buses pick up which kids. At one point when there were a greater number of students participating, students in the city were able to choose where they wanted to go to school in the county. There could have been students who lived on the same block going to all different county schools, according to Ellerman. How does one go about organizing a bus schedule for a situation like that?
Once student enrollment dwindled, it became even more difficult. The VICC program came up with different attendance zones in the city. Where you lived in the city affected which county schools you could attend. No longer could any student attend any school, but it made transportation more efficient.
“This is really a school choice program. It gives families the ability to choose what school they feel is best educationally for their students,” Ellerman said. Since some of those families were minorities who chose a mostly white school, it technically supported desegregation.
At the beginning of the program, a survey was sent out to parents about what they most valued in the busing program. One common response was the diversified education the students would receive. Parents thought that their kids would be exposed to diversity in one way or another either through college or the workforce. “The sooner you could be in a diverse setting, the more acclimated you would get to that, the better you could function in that,” Ellerman said.
Another response was that parents wanted the better academic programs that could be found in county schools, which the city schools just did not have. The third main reason was safety, said Ellerman: “They did not want to worry about whether their students were going to get hurt during the day at school.”
Did the program successfully desegregate?
“It did when it was at its peak,” Ellerman said, referring to the period from the late 1990s to the 2000s. Goals and objectives set by the settlement agreement were met, including achieving unitary status or sufficient balance in racial diversity. “Schools had to increase their black student enrollment by 15 percentage points above what it originally had been,” Ellerman explained. If the original Black student population was three percent, there would have to be an additional 15 percent to bring the total Black population to 18 percent. That was one of the reasons that the 1999 settlement agreement led to the program being phased out, because the courts saw that they achieved their goals and gave them the power to come to an agreement.
But the additional diversity that was achieved back then has been lost as program enrollment has dwindled. Demographics at the county schools have also shifted back to what they were before, not that diverse.
Legally, however, the desegregation program could not last forever: the Supreme Court has held that desegregation busing programs can’t go on in perpetuity. More money had been spent by the state of Missouri to remedy unlawful school segregation than the total of all the other states in the country except for California, according to Mark Bremer, a St. Louis attorney who was heavily involved with the settlement agreement. The parties to the 1999 settlement agreement ended up using a Michigan Law School opinion by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who thought busing would no longer be needed after 25 years.
“Where do you go to high school?” is one of the top questions any teenager in St. Louis gets asked. Whether they are out and about running errands with their parents or eating at a restaurant, every kid who grew up in St. Louis has been asked that question at least once in their life. But why?
To some, it is a way to see what people they know in common. “Oh, you went to Kirkwood? My friend teaches there” or “My daughter plays soccer with someone from there” people may say to make the world seem a little smaller. To those in St. Louis, though, it is also a status symbol. Where someone goes to high school can tell others about where they live, how much money they have, or how smart they are. Each school has its own stereotypes and connotations; people will criticize you based on where you go to school, as covered by the Riverfront Times. This question is asked in other cities as well, but it’s especially striking in a city as racially segregated and economically stratified as St. Louis.
But what if where you went to school doesn’t match up with where you live? What if someone who attended the public Clayton High School didn’t actually live in Clayton, but rather lived across town?
Zoey Hall and Jocelyn Leong are perfect examples. Both are current seniors who are bused from city neighborhoods to Clayton High School, selected by the school-ranking website Niche as the second-best public school in the state, in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county.
Hall lives on the north side of St. Louis City and has been in the program since she was in kindergarten. Her older sister was also in the program. When she started the program in kindergarten, she was shocked to see she was the only Black person in her class, having attended a more diverse preschool in the city beforehand.
“I remember there were only four Black girls in the entire grade and they put all three of them in one class and me by myself. I started crying that day because I was really upset about that!” she said, reflecting on her time in kindergarten. Being the only Black person in the room didn’t stop in kindergarten, but Hall grew used to it. “That kind of set the tone of how my experience was gonna go here,” she said.
Her favorite thing about the program is simple: being able to attend Clayton High School.
She appreciates all the opportunities she’s had with extracurriculars like speech and debate and student council. She also likes that Clayton has an administrator who is in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion. Things that may seem small to some are large to her because her friends in city schools don’t have all those things.
“I have friends who are some of the brightest people I’ve ever met but their school isn’t equipped with the resources or doesn’t have the connections to push them to the next level, so I’m really grateful for that,” she said.
She’s also grateful for the faculty support she has received in the program. One of her teachers from elementary school, the first Black teacher she had in the district, gave her the support and inspiration she needed. “It was amazing to see another smart, intelligent Black woman doing her thing in this space,” she said. The two still keep in touch and Hall will even occasionally babysit her children from time to time. “She showed her passion and went the extra length for us,” she said.
Her least favorite thing: the fact that the program is ending. She has heard about the decreasing number of student participants in the program and the lower number of Black students in the elementary schools, pointing to some classes only having one per grade. “My heart goes out to that kid having to look around and see no one like them,” she said. “And also to their white peers who aren’t growing up with people of different backgrounds and experiences too”.
For her, it’s a two-way street. The Black students get to be educated in a space with more resources and opportunities and the white students get to be exposed to students from different backgrounds.
Her advice to new students who may be joining the program is: “Take up space.” She urges Black students who are bused to use all the resources that they can, from the classes to the teachers. “I do think I kind of took for granted being at Clayton… It’s a privilege for me to be here. I need to use every resource in my hand to increase my applications, my resume and go forth,” she said.
She also stressed the need for those Black students to stay true to themselves and hold their ground. “That’s not just in the classroom but with your personality, knowing who you are and standing your ground and not changing yourself to fit in at all,” she said.
To Zoey Hall, the program is necessary to ameliorate the vestiges of redlining and slavery. “Yes, the VICC started as a desegregation program, but now it’s about an equity issue. It’s making sure that we’re giving children who are in not ideal situations due to redlining or institutional racism the opportunities and the same education as their white counterparts,” she said. “It’s not really about making sure we’re putting Black kids in white schools but making sure we’re getting kids who happen to be Black these opportunities to go forth in life, giving them the resources and experiences to finally put yourselves on the same playing level.”
Jocelyn Leong has also been in the program since she was in kindergarten. She lives on the South side of St. Louis City and would have attended Roosevelt High School if not for the VICC program. Roosevelt is about 80% Black, has an average SAT score of 810 and a graduation rate of 52%, according to Niche, while Clayton is 13% Black, has an average SAT score of 1310 and a graduation rate of 99%.
“It really is a blessing to be at Clayton High School,” she said. “The education here is outstanding, and I think for a while I took that for granted. To be here, and to be able to list it on my college resume is really nice because I was able to push myself further than I would have been if I wasn’t here.”
Leong’s younger sister is in third grade in the busing program. It was hard to even get her into the program with the lower number of participants, but Leong attributes her admission to the resources her family had, as well as the fact that Leong was also in the program.
It’s scary for her to think about where her sister would be and how she would be if she weren’t in the program even though fortunately all current applicants can be in the program until graduation. She’s also sad about the decreasing number of Black students in her sister’s class.
“She’s gonna grow up and there’s just gonna be fewer and fewer people of color there beside her… I think she’s a very social butterfly, so she’s able to make friends right now. But, I do wonder in the future if she’s gonna have the same problem as me. Is she ever gonna feel like, ‘Oh, I am the only black girl in my class?’ That’s very disappointing,” she said.
Leong agrees with Hall’s advice for students who may be just starting out in the program.
“Stay true to yourself. It’s gonna be hard to find your identity being at a school where everybody’s sure of it or acting the same… By the time you’re in high school, you’re gonna feel not bound to people who look like you but you’ll feel bound to the people who accept you for you,” she said. “They’re looking for your personality as opposed to what you look like on the outside.”
She also wants to get the word out and express the importance of programs like this for the students they affect. Leong would not be where she is today without the resources she was given as a student of color. She believes that the issue transcends just St. Louis and is a nationwide problem of the lack of resources and opportunities for many young people of color. Her future, though, is bright, thanks to the hard work she has put in and the opportunities she was given attending a school like Clayton. She plans to study marketing in college and take the skills she has learned over her 12 years in the program out into the world.
Back in the early ’80s, some of the difficulties the current students faced, like connecting with other students, were alive and well. For Abdullah, back in 1984, it was difficult to forge bonds with people at first.
“I didn’t make a lot of friends at first, because some of those social circles are just different where you don’t go to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, you don’t go to their birthday parties, you don’t see each other at church or you don’t see each other in the neighborhood,” he said.
Not being from the same neighborhood meant that after school, students’ social lives often didn’t overlap. Sports helped Abdullah bond and make connections with the other students. Another, more surprising, thing that helped him connect was the rise in popularity of hip-hop. “That whole Hip Hop kind of culture that we brought really attracted people to us,” he said. By introducing the other students to songs and artists like Flavor Flav, the students were able to bridge a gap.
The faculty and staff were another important and supportive resource for Abdullah during his time in the program. All of his principals set the tone for a no-tolerance policy of any sort of open racism. One of them Abdullah described as “an educator who wanted to educate all kids to understand the areas that some of the kids were coming out of. He was very sensitive, but very firm and very caring.” Abdullah also found comfort and community among his football coaches and other teachers and principals.
Even with all the support, there were a few outliers among his classmates. “I think some of them didn’t know how to take me or even take us initially,” he said. Students from time to time would say things like “Go back to Africa” and other racist comments here and there, which the principals and administrators would not tolerate.
Throughout his elementary and high school years, though, he only had one overtly racist teacher. “I can tell she didn’t want to educate me. And I didn’t want her to educate me either,” he said. Despite that one, older teacher, he felt plenty of support from the rest of the faculty and staff in a program Abdullah found success in, but thinks never should have had to exist in the first place.
He believes the inequality issues in St. Louis go beyond education and school choice. He believes that since the county and city split in 1876 (mostly due to the fact city residents didn’t want to pay for county residents’ infrastructure) in what’s called The Great Divorce, the inequalities have grown.
Over the years, many city residents have migrated to the county for better resources, leaving city dwellers with less. Abdullah believes that a unified school system is what we should have had all along instead of the divide between county and city. The busing program, to him, is still a good solution to this issue.
“I do believe that every kid should be able to get educated in their community,” said Abdullah. “If that’s not the case, then you should have the choice to be educated in a school district that you want that’s going to be equal or provide you the opportunity for you to be educated.”
With the program coming to a close, what comes next for the St. Louis education system and the inequalities that still persist?
For Abdullah, the key lies in St. Louis politics, specifically the consequences of the Great Divorce. He thinks the city needs to rejoin the county with one government and create a more unified school system and more equally dispersed resources. He also believes families are the future and by attracting more families to the city, better education will be a bigger priority.
That’s easier said than done, but one way it could be possible is through an act of Congress.
President Megan E. Green of the Board of Alderman for St. Louis City, believes the future will be decided by some current legislation moving through the U.S. Congress namely the Strength and Diversity Act.
“By ending the program, segregation in St. Louis will continue to rise,” she said. “We know that kids learn best in diverse, socio-economically integrated learning environments. Ending the program will have negative impacts on student learning and lead to an increase in segregation.”
This act provides planning grants for regions to determine what’s next as their desegregation programs phase out. The act also allows for regions to request funding for the implementation of their plans, according to President Green. Known as H.R. 729, it “establishes a program through which the U.S. Department of Education may award planning and implementation grants to specified educational agencies to improve diversity and reduce or eliminate racial or socioeconomic isolation in publicly funded early childhood education programs, public elementary schools, or public secondary schools,” according to congress.gov.
“It’s been almost 70 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and yet American public schools are more segregated today than they have been in generations,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut in May 2022 alongside other senators as they reintroduced the act to Congress. “All students benefit from a diverse classroom, but it’s students of color and those in low-income communities that are hurting the most by attending segregated schools.” The bill will give school districts resources to improve diversity and make sure every student has access to a good education.
According to Ellerman, it’s all about school choice for students moving forward. “Parents should be able to choose if they felt like their neighborhood school was either failing or not safe or not meeting the needs of their students,” he said. If the school down the street from them is falling down, but the one across town has all the resources they want, they should be able to send their children there.
“Classrooms around the country are as segregated now as they were before Brown,” writes Rucker C. Johnson, economist and professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, in the Washington Post.
Johnson is the author of the 2019 book Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, which argues that school integration efforts in the 70s and 80s were successful, we just gave up on them.
In his book and his article, he points to the common misconception that integration programs failed and says that real efforts only took place for about 15 years, peaking in 1988. He writes that during this period there was “the greatest racial convergence of achievement gaps, educational attainment, earnings and health status.”
He urges politicians to focus on more long-term public investments that contribute to lower crime and healthcare expenses rather than short-run budget deficits. He writes that Massachusetts and New Jersey, with the highest K-12 per-student spending and large pre-K investments, also have the lowest crime expenses.
“School integration didn’t fail. The only failure is that we stopped pursuing it and allowed the reign of segregation to return,” he writes. “Segregation is not only the isolation of schoolchildren from one another; it is the hoarding of opportunity.”
This opportunity is what students in the VICC program have gotten.
“On its face, we should have never had to have a deseg system… but I was educated, and I was nurtured in the desegregation program and at Mehlville High School,” Abdullah said. “I had great teachers and great people who cared about me, who educated me because they bought into the fact that all children deserve a good education. That’s what I was given.”