Saturday, November 29, 2014

Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama

Political Order andPolitical Decay is the second volume in Francis Fukyama’s effort to account for the nature and functioning of political systems (for my review of the first volume, see here). Despite the subtitle, it is less a history of modern political order than an attempt to theorize why political institutions work and don’t work. Fukuyama posits three dimensions of political order: the strength of the state, the rule, and the accountability of government to the governed. Three major categories of social influences shape these dimensions and the interactions among them. These are economic growth, social mobilization, and political ideas and legitimacy.

Behind the growth of the state lies a characteristic of human nature, the tendency of human beings to cooperate based on kinship and reciprocity. The evolution of political order entails moving away from service to oneself and one’s own, from patrimonial government to impersonal systems of authority.  Viewing political progress in this way places Fukuyama within the tradition of Max Weber: bureaucracy does not have the negative implications that it does in much common usage, but is a rational and goal-directed organization of behavior.  Fukuyama’s contributions to this Weberian perspective might lie in his attention to the dimension of accountability, of the explicit recognition that bureaucracies can be evaluated by how well they serve some set of public interests, and in his observation that states and their bureaucracies can only be accountable to the extent that they are subject to laws as well as carry out laws.

Fukuyama sees political order as a balance among his three dimensions. In the first volume, he described Chinese imperial governance as an early well-developed state that ruled by law but that was not itself under the law, and in this second book he traces that heritage to the challenges of modern China, which retains a strong state, but is not yet fully accountable to its population.  Nevertheless, China recovered from the colonial challenge of the West because it retained an ingrained political order. Other Asian nations that originally emerged under Chinese influence were also fairly successful in responding to Western pressures, especially Japan, which was able to integrate a strong state with political influences from Europe and America. By contrast, the nations of Africa have been notably unsuccessful because no cohesive state existed in them before the Europeans disrupted the Africans’ largely tribal organizations without creating deep-rooted and widely-accepted patterns of authority. Western colonialism was generally more successful in the Americas, especially where settler populations largely replaced pre-existing ones. The Americas, however, had varying outcomes, in Fukuyama’s view because their histories resulted from combinations of different European legacies, unique geographical and social contexts, and decisions of policy-makers.

Fukuyama is less appreciative of the early political history of the United States than are many other historical commentators. He views the extension of male suffrage in this country in the nineteenth century as the growth of democratic accountability before the emergence of a strong central state, producing clientelism. This perspective leads him to an enthusiastic appraisal of Progressive Era reforms, such as the civil service and unaccountable federal bureaucracies, which he presents as professionally dedicated to national-well being. He sees the governmental stalemates of the present as the consequence of the recapture of government by a multitude of special interests, creating a “vetocracy” of pressure groups that push the bureaucracies in different directions and prevent a strong, professionalized government from operating autonomously.
I was less impressed with this second book than with the first. This one does incorporate a wide range of information, but sometimes too much, so that it seems like Fukuyama was trying to work in whatever he happened to be reading at the time of writing. While the three dimensions of political order did offer a useful way of conceptualizing at the most abstract level, there were so many elements within the three kinds of influences that the schema often appeared to explain everything and nothing. When discussing why Costa Rica has been a successful nation since the middle of the twentieth century and Argentina has been much less successful, for example, Fukuyama is left telling us that Costa Rican politicians made good decisions and those of Argentina bad ones. That may well be so, but it is not much of an explanation.

The latter-day Progressivism embraced by the author ignores the New Class argument that self-controlling state bureaucracies do not necessarily serve some objective pubic good, but are themselves political actors.  Even when agency officials do not seek to benefit their own kin and allies, the dedication to organizational interests often forms a tribal commitment. In his enthusiasm for the autonomous, non-patrimonial state, Fukuyama overlooks the point that governments and government agencies are not just more or less accountable to their populations: the authorities are self-promoting parts of the population.  They may be all the more dangerous precisely because they do not see their agencies as pursuing narrow self-interest, but as enlightened rulers who have the expertise to decide what is good for everyone. When bureaucratic progressivism produces sections of the population who can set themselves up as experts on how everyone should live and what everyone should think  “accountability” shifts its meaning from representatives being accountable to an electorate to social technicians obtaining public assent to the technicians’ designs for a shared future.

I am not sure, then, that the impasses in US political life today are necessarily due to a “vetocracy” that impedes the salubrious decision-making of an active central government.  Rather, I think it is because a highly centralized American state has brought together groups within our population who have vastly different and even opposing ideas about what would constitute the general good on the major issues of the day. If autonomous agencies would have the power to make the decisions, the bureaucratic power would not make those decisions any less partisan.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why Didn't School Desegregation Work: The Case of New York City

In recent posts, I’ve been looking at school desegregation histories in districts around the nation, considering the question of why attempts to redistribute students by race did not produce truly desegregated schools or equalize educational outcomes. In fact, the evidence indicates that top-down, coercive programs of redistributing students actually made things worse.

 These case histories are based on greatly updated and revised passages from my book with Stephen J. Caldas, Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation. I’ll end today with the nation’s largest city, New York.

New York City

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Southern political leaders accused northerners of hypocrisy for vigorously pursuing desegregation in the South, while schools and other institutions continued to be segregated in the north. In the nation’s largest urban center, New York, schools were generally identifiable by race. The four boroughs of Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, held roughly 600 public elementary schools in 1970, and half of these were either 90 percent or more white or 90 percent or more black.[i]

Lending support to Southern accusations, a New York state anti-busing law, passed by the state legislature in May 1969, sought to avoid judicially mandated racial balancing by specifying that only elected school boards could assign students to schools. The New York law, held unconstitutional by a Federal court in October 1970, was widely copied by Southern school districts as a strategy for avoiding desegregation.[ii]

The New York City boroughs made some efforts on their own to achieve racial integration through busing and school re-zoning. These resulted in a number of conflicts. Responding to a plan by the Board of Education of Queens to re-zone schools for more even racial combinations, the president of the Martin Van Buren High School P.T.A. declared, “They’re talking about integrated schools. Well, they’re going to have segregated schools. Because people will move out, that’s all. Or put their children in private schools or parochial schools.”[iii]

In the spring of 1971, episodes of violence broke out between black and white students at South Shore High School in Brooklyn.[iv] A mother and father of a public school student, who had fled the Soviet Union a few years earlier, complained about the treatment received by their son in a newly integrated school:

Each school year he [the son] received certificates for his achievements ... This year, after attending school for two days in the sixth grade, he refused to go any longer. For participating actively in class, he has been called “Jewish faggot” and shot at with paper clips from catapults by his black classmates, because he “knows everything”... No teacher can start anything with students of such different ranges ... They [the black students] scatter the free lunches, preferring to extort food more to their taste - and money too - from their white classmates who are a minority and defenseless.[v]

The parents’ characterizations of their son’s black classmates were probably unfair generalizations from the behavior of a few, and one should be cautious about taking such reports at face value. The conflicts at South Shore certainly involved members of both racial groups and could have been sparked by white hostility. Still, these events testify to the disruptions of New York’s efforts at student redistribution, and concerns about the difficulties of teaching students with a wide range of preparation were well founded.

The earliest federal actions in New York were limited in scope. In January 1974, Judge Jack B. Weinstein directed the city’s Board of Education to devise a re-zoning plan to integrate Brooklyn’s Mark Twain Junior High. Four months later, Judge John F. Dooling Jr. criticized the Board for allowing racial imbalances, and he ordered the members to redraw the boundaries of Franklin K. Lane School, also in Brooklyn, which was attended mainly by black and Puerto Rican students.

A local resident of the Lane school district agreed with the judge’s decision, remarking that “Over the years the Board has gerrymandered our area into an all-black school district.” At the same time, though, the same man also observed that “the whites who got zoned in [to the Lane district] stopped sending their children to Franklin K. Lane and either sent them to Catholic schools or got addresses so they could qualify for other districts.”[vi] He did not, apparently, consider the possibility that re-zoning would produce a rapid increase in false addresses and Catholic school applications.

Officials recognized the problem of segregated housing patterns. Judge Weinstein tried to tie the desegregation of Mark Twain Junior High to an effort to bring more whites into nearby housing projects. The Board of Education raised the possibility of reaching into the suburbs for whites. “Given shifting population patterns - the movement of the middle class to the suburbs - and the declining number of ‘others’ [whites] in the city’s public schools,” declared the Board in a report to the State Board of Regents, “the task of achieving meaningful integration within the boundaries of New York City or other large cities becomes increasingly difficult.”[vii]

Over the following years, desegregation in New York City proceeded largely on a school-by-school basis. To create greater racial diversity at virtually all-black Andrew Jackson High School in Brooklyn, for example, beginning in 1976 the Board of Education set up a special “choice of admissions” zone to encourage white enrollments and move black students elsewhere. The zone plan gave black children who would otherwise go to Jackson the option of selecting any schools in the city with white enrollments of greater than fifty percent (commonly referred to as “majority to minority” transfers).

At the same time, white students within the zone were required to enroll in majority black schools, limiting their choices of admissions. White students and their families were not cooperating with the plan. The New York Times reported that “many white students in these zones have chosen to attend private or parochial schools in the city or elsewhere.”[viii] The existence of other options for white students frustrated centralized planning.

Federal District Judge John Dooling recognized that the zone plan was not working at Jackson. Judge Dooling ordered the district to come up with another one in 1979. An appeals court overturned the judge’s decision, though, on the grounds that Jackson and other city schools were becoming all minority because of changing demographics and residential patterns, not because of intentional actions by school officials.

An editorial writer, at that time, argued that the real problem was white flight to suburban areas. Therefore, New York should pursue a metropolitan solution, reaching into places such as nearly all-white Nassau County. The writer did not say how those pulled in from the suburbs could be restrained from doing precisely what the generally less economically advantaged whites within the city were already doing: leaving the public system.[ix]

Meanwhile, the school boards of New York tried to engage in desperate juggling maneuvers to keep schools as integrated as possible, avoid overcrowding, and keep whites, who made up only 30% of New York students at the end of the 1970s, from fleeing the area. To relieve enrollment pressures on Intermediate School 231, and to minimize white flight, in 1978 the Queens school board created a new school, drawing students from the mixed-race, middle class neighborhood of Rosedale.

Rosedale had already been losing white residents, but the creation of a new, more middle class school helped to slow down their departure. The president of the school board in school district 29 of Queens, Dolores Grant, explained that “white students were fleeing. That was a fact of life. It was not hearsay. The annex [the new school] helped turn that around.”[x] Federal authorities would have none of the explanations of the Queens school board. On August 29, 1979, the Federal Office for Civil Rights gave the board 30 days to desegregate I.S. 231 or lose $3.5 million in federal education funds.[xi]

The redistribution of white students from the mostly white Rosedale annex of I.S. 231 to the mostly black I.S. 231 provoked what may have been New York City’s greatest desegregation controversy. During the summer of 1980, New York City Public School Chancellor Frank J. Macchiarola, pushed by the threat of losing funds, ordered that 450 seventh and eighth graders be transferred from the mostly white annex to the predominantly black main school. The transfer would result in white students becoming a minority of 15% in their new school.

 In taking this action, the chancellor overrode the authority of local school board 29. The president of the local school board, Joseph Albergo, answered by saying that the transfers would result in over-crowding, as well as racial tensions. “No parent in his right mind will send his child to that school, especially under these conditions.”[xii] Ironically, the annex was one of the city’s more integrated schools, since it contained about 40 black and 330 white children, while many of New York’s schools consisted solely of minority students.[xiii] An editorial writer at the time observed that:

The loss of more white students would make district 29 resemble more closely the many community school districts in New York City in which meaningful integration is no longer possible because of a dwindling white enrollment in the public schools, which citywide are now less than one-third white. Meanwhile, parochial and other private schools in the five boroughs, which have a combined enrollment of 312,647 are two-thirds white.[xiv]

The battle over the Rosedale annex took place in the courts and out. Parents of students in the annex, which was located within the mostly white P.S. 138 elementary school of Rosedale, sought to appeal the chancellor’s order to the court, only to have the appeal dismissed early in 1981. Macchiarola came under additional pressure from the federal government, when, at about the same time as the dismissal of the appeal, the Federal Office of Civil Rights declared that the annex was illegal because it had resulted in the segregation of the main school. Angry parents in majority white Rosedale declared a boycott of majority black I.S. 231.[xv]

The parents of students at the forbidden annex occupied the building and staged sit-ins. New York Mayor Koch barred their eviction, expressing some sympathy for the protestors and seeking a peaceful resolution to the problem. People in the neighborhood claimed that the closing of their local middle school and the transfer of their children to another neighborhood constituted a fatal assault on their community.

Joseph Albergo, the fiery school board head, declared, “They’re [the Federal authorities and the city government] the ones doing the segregating. All these billions of dollars haven’t done a thing, but our community became naturally integrated, and they want to destroy it.”[xvi]

During the first week of February 1981, police officers swooped down on the Rosedale annex, evicted protestors, and arrested the few who refused to leave. As word of the evictions spread through the community, about 250 demonstrators gathered in front of the school with homemade signs. Local parents declared that they would continue their boycott, and refuse to send their children to I.S. 231.[xvii] New York’s Mayor Koch and Chancellor Macchiarola both criticized the protesting parents for their disregard of the law, believing that the protests had gone beyond disagreement with policy and turned into defiance of civic order.

Many black parents and several black officials were offended at the unwillingness of the Rosedale inhabitants to send their children to a school where whites would be a small minority and insisted that the Rosedale parents should follow policies established by the city and the federal government. Dr. Shirley Rose, a black school board member, declared that, “If they feel that the public school system cannot satisfy their needs they have the right to go to private schools.”[xviii] Responding to Dr. Rose, an assistant principal at Benjamin Cardozo high school observed:

Unfortunately that [white, middle class movement to private schools] is precisely what will happen. At a time when pressure is being put on Congress to pass laws that will bring about a voucher system and/or tax tuition credits, public education needs all the friends it can get. What is happening in Rosedale is hastening the demise of the public schools. The middle class is being told it is not wanted. How can any system of public education function without the support of the backbone of its community?[xix]

The people of the Rosedale neighborhood defended their protest marches and sit-ins as desperate measures, intended to save a community centered on its schools. Rosedale was a small, working class enclave, surrounded by poverty and urban deterioration. Mrs. Sandra Petker, an active PTA member, explained that, “closing the annex would be the beginning of the end, absolutely. Whites have been staying in Rosedale because of the schools. If the community starts moving because of the closed annex, I’d have to move too.”[xx]

By the beginning of the 1981-82 school year, appeals to the courts to re-open the Rosedale annex had been decisively defeated and the boycott had come to an end. Reportedly, ten to fifteen percent of the students who enrolled at I.S. 231 were white. Ironically, apparently as a consequence of desegregation, minority predominance at the school was sufficient to qualify the school for a $300 million federal grant through the Emergency School Act to promote desegregation.[xxi]

We can never know for certain if retaining neighborhood schools would have stemmed white movement out of the boroughs of New York or out of the city public school system. All the indications suggest that maintaining schools such as the Rosedale annex would have at least slowed the process. This is counterfactual history, though, and there is no way to convince those who prefer to believe otherwise. We do know that attempts to redistribute students for desegregation did not desegregate the schools.

The proportion of white students in New York schools had gone down from 30% at the end of the 1970s to just 15% in the 2002-2003 school year. This was slightly more than the 13% who were Asian. Hispanics had displaced black students as the largest category in the city, since 34% of those on the New York City public school rolls were black in 2002-2003 and 38% were classified as Hispanic.

 In the formerly white enclave of Rosedale, the Rosedale Elementary school was 93.5% black and 4.8% Hispanic. P.S. 138, where the Rosedale annex had been housed, was 88.9% black and 6.8% Hispanic. I.S. 231 had become the Magnetech 231 Educational Center, offering special magnet programs. Two decades after it was a center of the desegregation controversy in New York, this middle school was 90.9% black and 6.3% Hispanic.[xxii]

In a series of articles entitled “A System Divided,” published over several months in 2012, the New York Times examined the changing racial and ethnic composition of New York public schools. In this series, the newspaper provided a view of a school system in which non-Hispanic whites had become a small minority. Among the schools, a high degree of de facto segregation prevailed.

“In the broad resegregation of the nation’s schools that has transpired over recent decades,” wrote reporter N.R. Kleinfeld, “New York’s public-school system looms as one of the most segregated. While the city’s public-school population looks diverse — 40.3 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14.9 percent white and 13.7 percent Asian — many of its schools are nothing of the sort. About 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race, a New York Times analysis of schools data for the 2009-10 school year found; more than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic.”[xxiii]The white students who remained in the system often did so, rather than flee to private schools or move to the suburbs, because they could find ways to avoid disadvantaged minority concentration schools through winning spots in elite public institutions through academic achievement: "New York has eight specialized high schools whose admission is based entirely on the results of an entrance exam."[xxiv] Given the racial and ethnic achievement gaps that we will describe below, this meant that these schools had few black and Hispanic students.

At Stuyvesant High School, considered the best public school in the city, whites made up 24% of students in 2012, while blacks were 1.2% and Hispanics were 2.4%.[xxv] The elite public schools tended to be dominated by Asians, though, who generally lacked the ability of whites to flee to private institutions or leave for the suburbs. At Stuyvestant, 72.5% of students were Asian in 2012. Because of their dedication to studying in order to win places in the elite schools, though Asian students were only 14% of students in the system in 2011-2012, they made up 60% of those at the eight top schools with admissions based on test results.[xxvi]

A system of meritocratic admissions will clearly continue to segregate students by race and ethnicity. Although the NYC Department of Education trumpeted the claim that "NYC students outperformed students in NYS [New York State] across student groups" on the new NYS common core tests in 2013, this "outperformance" was largely an artifact created by comparing the city's Asian and white students to Asian and white students elsewhere, even though white students made up a much smaller proportion of the school population of the city than of the state as a whole.

 On that test, Asian students in grades three through eight, concentrated in a few magnet programs in NYC, scored at or above the proficient level in mathematics at a rate of 61.4% in NYC,  while 60.3% of Asians throughout the state were at the proficient level in math. Among the white students, who were a small proportion of NYC's pupils found largely in the top schools, 50.1% scored at or above proficient in mathematics, compared to only 38.1% of white students throughout the state.

In English, the city's Asians (more often immigrants or children of new immigrants than Asians in other locations) did slightly worse than Asians in other parts of the state. Among NYC Asians,  48.1% were at or above proficient, compared to 50.4% of New York State Asians. Tellingly, one should note that Asians did better than even New York's white students in English, since 46.8% of whites in the city and 39.9% of whites throughout the state were at or above proficient.

The city's black and Hispanic majority, though, scored far lower than either Asians or whites, and no better than blacks or Hispanics elsewhere in New York State. In mathematics 15.3% of blacks were proficient or better (exactly the same as the percentage of blacks throughout the state), and in English 16.3% of blacks were proficient or better (only slightly more than the 16.1% of statewide black students). Among NYC Hispanics, 18.6% were proficient or better in math, and 16.6% proficient in English (as opposed to 18.4% of statewide Hispanics in math and 17.7% of statewide Hispanics in English).[xxvii]

It is interesting, although disconcerting, that in 2013 black students were still doing worse than any of the other groups; even worse than Asian and Hispanic students in English, despite the fact that many Asian and Hispanic students lived in immigrant, non-English speaking households. But it is clear why Asian and white students would be concentrated in the elite schools and programs throughout the city, and why their families would seek to avoid desegregation into mostly black and Hispanic schools if policy makers would ever recover the "political will" to make new aggressive efforts at racial redistribution.

Given the achievement gaps, being in a classroom with black and Hispanic students (and especially with black students) means being in a low-performing classroom. Those who want to avoid low-performing classrooms can either leave the system altogether, as whites did during the history of desegregation, or they can find schools that select on the basis of achievement within the system. Those schools will be racially identifiable, with mostly Asian and a substantial minority of white students.


[i] John Herders, “Challenge to the North on School Segregation,” New York Times, February 15, 1970. sec. 4, p. 2.
[ii] “Antibusing Law for State Voided by Federal Court,” New York Times, October 2, 1970, 1.
[iii] Lesley Oelsner, “Queens School Plan Stirs Racial Controversy,” New York Times, April 12, 1971, 48.
[iv] Martin Arnold, “Racial Outbreak at South Shore High School in Brooklyn is Traced to Earlier Tensions,” New York Times, April 30, 1971, 40.
[v] Mia and Mitchell Vickers, New York Times, October 17, 1970, Letter to Editor.
[vi] “Integration Plan Hailed at School,” New York Times, May 18, 1974, 35.
[vii] Gene I. Maeroff, “City Schools Hint Suburbs are Needed in Integration,” New York Times, February 27, 1974, 1.
[viii]Marcia Chambers,”School Integration Goals Elusive in Changing City,” New York Times, April 23, 1979, B1.
[ix]“Abandoning Andrew Jackson High,” New York Times, April 27, 1979, A30.
[x] Marcia Chambers, “U.S. Tells Queens to Desegregate a School,” New York Times, August, 30, 1979, B3.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ari L. Goldman, “Macchiarola Orders Whites Shifted to Nearly All-Black Queens School,” New York Times, 19 June 19, 1980, B5.
[xiii]Gene Maeroff, “Imbalance in the Schools and the Dilemmas of Integration,” New York Times, December 27, 1980, 25.
[xiv] Ibid
[xv] Ari L. Goldman, “Queens Parents Defy Macchiarola on Pupil Transfer,” New York Times, February 2, 1981, B3.
[xvi] Serge Schmemann, “Rosedale School Dispute: The Parents Feel Abused,” New York Times, February 6, 1981, B1+, quote on B3.
[xvii] Edward A. Gargan, “Police Evict Protestors Occupying Queens School in Integration Case,” New York Times,  February 8, 1981, 1+.
[xviii]Ibid., 30.
[xix] Howard Sertan, letter, New York Times 18 Feb.1981: 30.
[xx] Serge Schmemann, “White View of Schools Clash,” New York Times Feb. 17 1981: B1+, quote on B1.
[xxi] Gene L. Maeroff, “U.S. May Aid Queens Racial Plan,” New York Times, Sept. 11, 1981, B2.
[xxii]Enrollment data available on-line at <
[xxiii] N.R. Kleinfeld, “Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?” New York Times, May 11, 2012, MB1.
[xxiv]Fernanda Santos, "To Be Black at Stuyvesant High,” New York Times, February 25, 2012, MB1.
[xxv] Ibid.
[xxvi] Kyle Spencer, "For Asians, Schools are Vital Steppingstones,” New York Times, October 26, 2012, A18.
[xxvii]NYC Department of Education. "2013 New York State Common Core Test Results: New York City Grades 3-8,"  August 2013, accessed October 28, 2013,

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why Didn't School Desegregation Work? The Case of Los Angeles

I've been looking at the question of why school desegregation failed to end the racial isolation of minority students or create equality of academic achievement.  The evidence from the histories of school districts around the country strongly supports the argument that this failure was not the result of a reluctance on the part of policy makers to push hard enough. Instead, the school desegregation movement illustrated the hubris of social policy, the belief that social institutions can be redesigned at will. Today, I'll move to the West Coast and describe what happened in one of the nation's largest school districts.

Los Angeles, California
The desegregation fight in Los Angeles began with the case of Crawford v. Board of Education in 1963, when black parents filed a suit on behalf of black and Latino students to enable minority children to attend then all-white schools.[i] The California district’s first desegregation trial was held in 1967, when white students were a majority of 55%. On February 11, 1970, Superior Court Judge Alfred Gitelson found that the school board had operated a segregated system and he ordered it to take action to desegregate.

The school board appealed Judge Gitelson’s decision. In March 1975, the court of appeal found in favor of the board. In turn, though, this finding was appealed by the American Civil Liberties Union. At the end of June 1976, the California Supreme Court upheld the 1970 ruling by Judge Gitelson. While the state high court reversed a part of Judge Gitelson’s ruling that defined desegregation in terms of specific percentages of students, it ordered the school board to alleviate all of the effects of segregation, regardless of the cause of segregation, and show progress toward that end.

During 1977, the L.A. school board submitted a desegregation plan to the California Supreme Court and began hearings on the plan. In February 1978, Judge Paul Egly issued an order approving the board’s plan as a first step toward desegregation. The following year, Egly ordered that mandatory reassignments of students from current to new schools cover grades one through nine by September 1980, and then include all other grades by 1983.

Judge Egly’s order was complicated by many of the characteristics of Los Angeles. It is a huge district, covering 700 square miles, with minority students most heavily concentrated in South Central L.A. This meant that extremely long daily bus rides would be required to redistribute the city’s students. Many of the districts where the white students lived were surrounded by other suburban school districts, making white movement to less threatened school environments relatively easy.

Los Angeles was a harbinger of the future in many other metropolitan areas because its ethnic composition was far more complex than a simple division between black and white. Some of these other ethnic groups, such as Mexican Americans, felt that the desegregation program was not in their own interests.[ii]  The Los Angeles plan did not appear to take any of these complications into consideration. It was an abstract blueprint imposed from above by command and control planners.

Spurred largely by events in Los Angeles, California voters approved Proposition 1 in 1979, amending the state constitution to prohibit any more busing or school transfers than required under the U.S. Constitution. Although this ended mandatory busing in Los Angeles in 1981 after the Court of Appeals upheld the proposition, voluntary busing of students for school desegregation did continue under a plan approved by Judge Robert B. Lopez in September 1981.

In accordance with the voluntary plan, the school system bused 57,000 voluntary school transferees in 1985. The local NAACP criticized the program in that year, though, because almost all of those being bused were black students. The civil rights organization maintained that a serious attempt to desegregate Los Angeles schools would require busing white students into South Central L.A. Interestingly, Latino education leaders opposed busing, instead favoring greater spending on neighborhood schools within Latino areas.[iii]

Los Angeles also tried to desegregate through the common strategy of magnet schools, offering special educational programs in the hopes of appealing to members of all racial groups. The magnet schools tried to maintain enrollments that were 40% white and 60% nonwhite. By the early 1980s, though, they were already finding it difficult to meet the 40% target for white students.[iv]

In 1982, as many as 10 of the district’s 84 magnet schools contained no white students at all and 18 had fewer than 20% white students. Only 33 were at approximately the target enrollments.[v] Many of the magnet schools were also not providing students with the quality of education promised, and they provided educations that were expensive for taxpayers, but failed to achieve “either distinction or integration.”[vi]

Meanwhile, faced with declining social environments in low-income, majority black schools, many concerned black parents began behaving exactly like middle class whites and engaging in various forms of “black flight.” “Some ... are manipulating the school system to their children’s advantage [by using false addresses to enroll their children in other school districts]. Others are busing their children to schools in white neighborhoods, placing them in special programs, or leaving the public school system altogether.[vii]

Fight over judicial control of the schools continued, even after the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 1. In 1985, voters in West San Fernando Valley, the heart of opposition to busing, elected busing critic and academic David Armor to the Los Angeles School Board out of fear that the area would return to a mandatory program of transporting students around the area.[viii]
Trying to maintain elusive racial balances became increasingly difficult as the population of Los Angeles changed over the course of the 1980s. In 1987, with numbers of minority students in the district rapidly increasing, the school board voted to increase minority enrollments to 70% at 48 magnet schools, while still designating the schools as “integrated.”[ix] The changing of ratios was controversial.

Some critics accused the school board of intentionally creating segregated schools. Others, particularly in the Valley, were upset because bringing down the acceptable proportion of white students in magnet schools to 30% would lower the number of white students who could get into those schools. School board member Roberta Weintraub, speaking to white parents from the Valley, complained that “I’m really tired of our Valley schools getting shafted. My perception is that we will have a massive pullout of the middle class.”[x]

With decreasing opportunities for the white middle class families, many tried devious maneuvers to place their children in desirable school environments. School officials responded with intensified efforts at control. Child-care transfers became a common strategy. District policy permitted parents to transfer their children out of their designated schools if the schools did not provide before or after school childcare or if the parents had arranged for off-campus childcare near another school.

The board found that white parents were using fraudulent child care claims to transfer their children out of minority dominated schools to predominantly white schools. Thus, in the summer of 1988 the board began to refuse this type of exemption to white students transferring into schools that were 70% or more white.[xi] In the name of desegregation, which had originally meant allowing minority students to attend white schools, Los Angeles had begun officially approving schools that were mostly black or Latino, while energetically discouraging schools that were mostly white.

By June 1988, the pointlessness of the district’s long and expensive desegregation suit had become clear. Judge A. Wallace Tashima granted a conditional dismissal of the case that had begun in 1963, and directed the NAACP and the school district to resolve their differences. According to school district counsel Peter James, the dismissal came from the recognition that little could be done to desegregate a school system that was just 17% white.[xii] After bitter and difficult negotiations between the two parties, the judge finally dismissed the suit in March 1989, twenty-six years after its beginning.

The white proportion of public schools had dropped still further from the previous year, to less than 16%. The Los Angeles Times reported that there was a wide and persistent gap in academic achievement between the minority students and the small number of whites who were left. “More than 20 years after the Los Angeles Unified School District began its original busing program to integrate schools, the minority pupils in that program are doing little or no better than the students they leave behind in segregated schools and much worse than their white classmates.”[xiii]

In the years following the end of desegregation, the percentage of black students in the Los Angeles Unified School District did decline, as did numbers of black students. The district registered black enrollments of 82,423 in 2005-2006 (11.4% of all students), which declined to 69,143 in 2009-2010 (10.2%). This did not represent growing desegregation, in the traditional sense of greater contact between minority students and whites, though. Instead, it reflected the demographic changes we discussed above.

Los Angeles schools had become a concentration of Hispanics, who made up about three-fourths of the district's student body (73.4%) in 2009-2010. Within the district, schools were generally racially identifiable, mostly as Hispanic, but in some cases as black. In the 2011-2012 school year, for example, Douglass High School was 92.1% black and 7.4% Hispanic. It had no recorded white students. Camino Nuevo High School, on the other hand, was 96.6% Hispanic and only 0.2% black. Camino Nuevo had only four white students in that year.[xiv]

After all of the expense and all of the conflict over desegregation, Los Angeles still had schools that were almost all black or almost all Hispanic. White students had become a scarce commodity. This was not entirely a result of white flight from the schools. Demographic change from immigration also played a large part. But the fact remains that social planners' schemes to redistribute students by race had proved futile in the Los Angeles School District.

[i] Jim Mann, “18 Years En Route, LA Busing Arrives at the Highest Court,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1982, 1-2.
[ii] Robert Lindsey, “Anger in California” New York Times, March 5, 1978, E4.
[iii] David G. Savage, “School Integration, Crowding: Solutions in Conflict?” Los Angeles Times, October 27. 1985, sec. 2, p.1.
[iv] “14,000 Apply for ‘Magnet’ Schools,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1982, 25.
[vi]William Trombley, “Major Problems Face Magnet Schools,” Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1982, 2.
[vii] Lee Harris and TendayiKumbula, “Many Parents Giving Up on Black Public Schools,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1982: 1+.
[viii] Pamela Moreland, “Armor Doesn’t Miss a Beat in Battle Against Busing,” Los Angeles Times, June 6. 1985, 3.
[ix]Pamela Moreland, “Board Raises Ratio of Minority Enrollments for 48 L.A. Schools,” Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1987, 1.
[x] Pamela Moreland, “Valley is ‘Getting Shafted,’ Weintraub Says of Magnet Proposal,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1987, 3.
[xi] Pamela Moreland, “L.A. Schools’ White Limits at 11 Schools is Reinforced,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1988, 1.
[xii] Elaine Woo, “Judge Tells NAACP to Settle Lawsuit,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1988, 1.
[xiii]Sandy Banks, “Minority Gains Limited in L.A. Busing Program,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1990, 1.
[xiv] Los Angeles Unified School District, District and School Profiles, accessed October 25, 2013,