Book review of Delmont, Why Busing Failed

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Book review manuscript accepted for publication:

Robert Cotto Jr. and Jack Dougherty, “Review of ‘Why Busing Failed’ by Matthew Delmont,” History of Education Quarterly 57, no. 1 (January 2017). Text copyrighted by History of Education Society and shared here under terms of the contributor agreement.

Matthew F. Delmont. Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. 304 pp. Paperback, $29.95. Companion website with multimedia sources,

Book cover from UC Press
Book cover from UC Press

Matthew Delmont’s insightful book challenges us to rethink the history of “busing,” a word he intentionally places in quotation marks to emphasize its rise as a rhetorical strategy. Prior to the 1954 Brown decision, riding the school bus had been a white privilege in the rural South, particularly as it passed by (and sometimes splashed mud on) black children who walked the road to segregated schools. But as the school integration movement headed to the North and West in the 1960s and 1970s, white parents and politicians resisted by reframing their objections as a crisis over “busing” and “neighborhood schools.” In this way, whites advanced their own agendas and pushed black students’ moral and legal claims off the political stage, while avoiding explicitly racist language. The national news media was complicit in this rhetorical shift, he argues. As school desegregation battles moved from the Jim Crow South to northern and western states, big-city newspapers and television networks covered these events with less moral clarity, and sometimes open hostility, in their own backyards. Trained in American Studies, Delmont argues that we cannot comprehend this period solely through policy debates and courtroom proceedings. In addition, we must focus on local anti-integration protests, and the national politics and televised nightly news broadcasts that elevated their cause, to understand the rise of the busing narrative and its broader consequences.

In this wide-ranging study, chapters flow back and forth between two levels of analysis. The book opens with local battles over school integration (in New York City and Chicago, and later in Boston and Pontiac, Michigan) and expands to incorporate national politics and media coverage (primarily in Washington, DC, big-city newspapers, and the three major television news networks at that time: NBC, CBS, and ABC). The first chapter, on New York City, begins with the 1964 black and Puerto Rican school boycott for a desegregation plan, followed by the white parent protest against busing. Delmont skillfully demonstrates how this school boycott and counterprotest led to a dilemma for northern politicians just as Congress began debate on the Civil Rights Act. Northern members of Congress were content with desegregation in the South, but explicitly sought to protect their states from any required busing to correct racial imbalance. Delmont keenly points out that the southern members of Congress highlighted white resistance to busing in New York City to make their point against desegregation in the South and northern hypocrisy on racial segregation in general. In this chapter, New York City, whose school districts contained the largest black student population in the country, is centered in the national discourse on desegregation. Nevertheless, as Delmont reminds the reader, the media minimized the mass demands of black and Puerto Rican activists for school desegregation, while a minor white parent protest was elevated and used as evidence that busing was simply unreasonable.

The second chapter revisits Chicago’s pivotal clash with federal officials over desegregation in 1965. Activists filed a complaint with the US Office of Education claiming that Chicago Public Schools was in violation of the Civil Rights Act with regard to racial discrimination and segregation. For a brief time, the federal government agreed with the complaint and withheld $30 million in funding from the district. But, under pressure from Chicago’s Mayor Daley, President Johnson’s administration relented and eventually released the funds. The clash was pivotal because it signaled the collapse of any possible federal enforcement of desegregation outside of the southern states—news that circulated nationally.

The third city, Boston, is the culminating northern location where substantial black civil rights activism became overshadowed by white resistance to busing. Black protest against segregation and grassroots actions such as Operation Exodus led to the passage of the Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Act in 1965. In response, the media elevated white resistance to busing and transformed Boston school committee member Louise Day Hicks into an antibusing icon. For years, Hicks “led a committee which for years had prioritized the preferences and expectations of white parents over the rights of black students” (pp. 84–85). Why Busing Failed stands in sharp contrast to J. Anthony Lukas’s well-known book on Boston, Common Ground (1985), which Delmont critiques for featuring three families who disliked busing and ignoring the local history of black activism for integrated schools.

Delmont spends the remainder of the book’s chapters examining the national discussion on desegregation, now framed as “busing.” Chapter 4 documents the bipartisan and national political opposition to school desegregation. Chapter 5 chronicles Richard Nixon’s “antibusing” presidency, particularly his television appearances on the subject. Chapter 6 analyzes how national television news covered antibusing activist Irene McCabe and her grassroots movement in Pontiac, Michigan. Chapter 7 focuses on the complexity of black opinions about school desegregation and common understanding of the busing frame as antiblack racial code. The book concludes with a review of television coverage of Boston’s busing crisis in 1974. Throughout these chapters, Delmont consistently reminds the reader how the media framed desegregation as busing and the importance of northern urban politics to this national discourse.

Delmont’s most significant contribution is his creative interpretation of how national television and print media framed busing “as the common-sense way to describe, debate, and oppose school desegregation” (p. 6). In addition to conventional archival and legal sources, he analyzed over ten thousand reports from white daily and black weekly newspapers, along with dozens of hours of television news archives, to explain how media economics and technology shaped news coverage. Moreover, Delmont exemplifies historical scholarship in the digital age by sharing selected video, photo, and documentary evidence, along with extensive excerpts from his book, on a companion website ( Pairing multimedia evidence with the narrative makes a more compelling argument than the book alone, for both scholars and students, and the book’s companion site is ideal for educational use, organized around the theme of “12 Ways to Teach ‘Busing’ Differently.” Educational historians also may be interested in Delmont’s companion site for his previous book, The Nicest Kids in Town (2012), which features video and images on civil rights struggles and youth culture regarding the 1950s American Bandstand television program ( Overall, Why Busing Failed is a must-read for historians and policy analysts of civil rights and school desegregation.

Robert Cotto Jr. and Jack Dougherty, Trinity College

Separate and Unequal: Sept 22nd event at Stowe Center

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Separate and Unequal: How Do We Achieve Equity in Education?

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Though it has been more than 60 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision ordered schools to desegregate, our educational institutions are still separate and unequal.

How do we create equity in education? How do we ensure everyone has the resources to succeed? 

Join the conversation with featured guests Jose Colon, Hartford Public High School and Robert Cotto, Trinity College and Hartford Board of Education.

When: September 22, 2016, 5:30 – 6 PM Refreshments and 6 – 7:30 PM Discussion

Where:  Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Salons at Stowe (web site), 77 Forest Street, Hartford

Cost: Free Event. Reservations or 860-522-9258, x317.

What happens at a Salon?

Since 2008, the Stowe Center has brought community members together for Salons at Stowe, spirited discussions of contemporary issues to foster engagement and community action.

Salon admission is FREE thanks to our members, donors and CT Department of Economic & Community Development; CT Office of the Arts; Ensworth Charitable Trust; Greater Hartford Arts Council; Hartford Foundation for Public Giving; The Hartford; Lincoln Financial Foundation; and Travelers Foundation.

Robert Cotto on School Choice at Metro Hartford Progress Points Forum

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Last week I attended the Metro Hartford Progress Points Forum on Access to Better Schools, hosted by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and held at my home campus of Trinity College. One of the panelists was my colleague Robert Cotto, the Director of Urban Educational Initiatives, who also teaches courses in our Educational Studies Program and collaborates with me on the Cities Suburbs and Schools Project. In this wide-ranging discussion of public school choice and declining enrollments across the Hartford region, Robert made several comments that helped to re-center the conversation and re-focus the audience’s attention on what matters most. (The Foundation’s YouTube video allows me to point readers to specific segments that stood out in my mind.)

During the first segment (minutes 19:15-23:45), Robert told a story that I had not previously heard, about how he initially became involved in school choice research. After teaching at a magnet school and being elected to the Hartford board of education, he became more immersed in education data. Members of a local organization, Connecticut Parent Power, asked him an important question: Do magnet schools and charter schools do better academically than traditional schools? Robert explained that while he could not directly answer that question, due to data limitations, he could help them to “peel back some of the layers” of choice schools by answering a related question. Using publicly available data, Robert showed that in Connecticut, on average, magnet/charter/technical schools enroll more advantaged student populations than traditional public schools, based on measures such as family income, language, and disability status. His presentation to a parent organization eventually led to his Choice Watch report, published by Connecticut Voices for Children in 2014.

Click the video above to jump to minute 19:15

During a second segment (39:15-45:00) on innovative strategies to break down barriers to educational opportunity, Robert reminded the audience that Connecticut’s interdistrict magnet schools “have solved a number of problems, but created others.” Twenty-five years ago, most families in the Hartford region attended racially segregated schools, based on rigid attendance boundary lines that followed segregated housing patterns. But activists behind the 1989 Sheff school integration case altered our educational landscape, by pressuring the State to create over 40 magnet schools in the region, which use special curricular themes to attract both city and suburban families. Magnet schools “break down the lines of towns,” Robert emphasized, and are so popular that most of Hartford’s political leaders seek to enroll their own children. But magnets have created a second generation of problems that we need to address. Although Connecticut’s public school choice programs (including both magnets and charter schools) are enrolling larger numbers of children, “we are not being very deliberative about [which] students are [attending], and how fair that process is,” nor are we consciously thinking about the implications of shrinking school enrollments across the metropolitan region.

Click the video above to jump to minute 39:15

Near the end of the forum (1:12:00 — 1:14:00), Robert responded to an audience question about school choice opportunities for Hartford students in suburban towns with declining enrollments. Recently, school boards in predominantly White suburbs, such as Glastonbury, have voted to close some of their under-enrolled elementary schools, rather than invite more Hartford children to attend through the state-subsidized Open Choice transfer program. Robert argues that these debates demonstrate White resistance to school integration, and he called for re-centering the discussion at this forum. “If Glastonbury’s enrollment is declining, and they don’t want to open the school, and it’s because they don’t want Black and Brown kids, then fine, close it,” he stated. Robert described how his three-year-old niece, a Hartford resident, “spends two hours on the bus to go to a CREC magnet school” located in a distant suburb. If suburbs resist integration, then the solution is to build more racially and economically diverse school programs here in the higher-density city, rather than the sprawling suburbs. “For me,” he concluded, “school choice programs are helpful to the extent that they are helping kids in Hartford.”

Click the video above to jump to hour/minute 1:12:00

Reflections on Yale EDST 110 Sheff Policy Memos

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Dear Yale EDST 110 students:

Mira Debs asked me to respond to your EDST 110 Sheff policy assignment, where several of you posted memos to advise Commissioner of Education Diana Wentzell on the state’s position in the ongoing Sheff v O’Neill negotiations. In short, your assignment asked you to respond to this prompt:

The Sheff plaintiffs and their supporters have advocated for increased funding to expand magnet school offerings, in order to create more spaces for minority students from Hartford and inner-ring suburbs to attend these generally higher performing schools. However, others have argued that the district and state’s resources would be better spent improving Hartford’s perennially lower-performing non-magnet neighborhood schools. Should the state’s first priority be racial and socio-economic integration, as the Sheff decision declared, or access to high quality schools across-the-board even if they remain segregated?

Several of you posted your hypothetical memos on the public web, which helps to educate many of us about your thinking on these very real issues. I was impressed by many of the insightful arguments and clear evidence you presented to Commissioner Wentzell.

Barbara Santiago focused on ways to improve the implementation of the magnet lottery, which I found compelling, but mostly because I’ve been arguing along similar lines in recent years, so am biased. Eddie Maza argued for expanding magnets by building them in affluent suburbs, which would be politically popular (see long waiting lists for several suburban magnets), but it’s very hard for me to justify this approach because it seems to abandon the city. Jackie Ferro delved into the Lighthouse Schools argument, and the idea about addressing housing and schooling together sounds compelling at first glance. But the longer I have watched the state fumble around with this vague Lighthouse idea in practice, the more doubtful I have become about its viability. Chris Rice argued for a “balanced approach” that called for improving the current school system rather than expanding magnet schools. Good to see attention paid to reducing disparities among applicants and addressing transportation inequities, but it’s hard for me to envision improving access to quality integrated schooling without expanding the number of magnet schools. Ana Barros offered a creative idea by calling for the creation of an advocacy branch within the Hartford Board of Education, but I’m concerned that adding another layer of elected governance might confuse the political accountability issues she identified. Furthermore, in the fight between the Sheff plaintiffs and the state government, the city plays a weak role. If you’re going to challenge governance systems, why not alter the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), where suburban interests outnumber urban interests? Ophelia Hu took a different approach by arguing for the Commissioner to invest in non-magnet neighborhood schools. While I appreciate the arguments about neighborhood identity and the threats posed to them by non-neighborhood magnet schools, this strategy still begs the question: If Governor Malloy’s administration is fighting against funding the Sheff remedy, which is required by Connecticut’s court system, what motivation does he have to fund a non-integrated remedy that has no legal backing? Overall, despite my criticisms above, the students who posted their essays online made me think more deeply about these issues, and to question my own thinking about what might work.

Now let’s jump from your hypothetical memos back to reality: For those of you who argued for making integrated schooling a stronger priority, the Commissioner doesn’t appear to be listening. Over the past two months since your Yale course began, take a closer look at what Governor Malloy’s administration has done about Sheff, acting through his Attorney General’s office and State Department of Education:

1) Connecticut’s executive branch recently declared that the judicial branch should end its role in the Sheff case. In September 2015, Assistant Attorney General Ralph Urban told Judge Marshall Berger that the court’s oversight of the state’s compliance with the Sheff remedy was no longer necessary. Objecting to his claim was Martha Stone, attorney for the Sheff plaintiffs. “To walk away from court supervision when thousands of kids are not getting the education they deserve would be dereliction of duty,” she responded. As of October 2014, less than 45 percent of Hartford’s Black and Latino students are receiving a high-quality racially integrated education, such as interdistrict magnets or suburban Open Choice schools. Judge Berger was surprised by the state’s abrupt shift, and ordered the two parties to continue negotiations, though no progress has been reported. (See reporting by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas at )

2) In the same courtroom exchange above, the Malloy administration also called for halting all future magnet school construction. “We are not building any more,” Assistant AG Urban told Judge Berger. Instead, Urban stated that “we are growing the Open Choice program,” where suburban districts voluntarily agree to enroll urban students, with financial incentives from the state. But the Open Choice program serves far smaller numbers of Hartford minority students than magnet schools (2,016 versus 6,490, respectively in October 2014). Also, some charge that Open Choice places the burden of integration on minority children by requiring them to travel long distances to outlying suburbs, rather than building integrated magnet schools in the city or near its border (

3) Although the Attorney General’s staff claims to be growing Open Choice, the State Department of Education is reducing its funding. In November 2015, Commissioner Wentzell responded to Governor Malloy’s call to cut $4.5 million dollars from the education budget by recommending a $500,000 reduction for the city-suburban Open Choice Program for integrated schools. (In fact, the entire list of proposed cuts affects only urban students, whether in integrated or segregated schools.) But Wentzell did not change the school funding formula that sends state money to all districts across Connecticut, including many suburbs. Furthermore, she remarked that her proposed cuts “will not impact the ‘core mission’ of the agency,” which leads me to wonder about what she considers to be her top priorities (

Although you’ve written excellent hypothetical memos to Commissioner Wentzell, over the past two months it’s become clearer to me that Governor Malloy wants to get rid of the Sheff case, and she appears to be going along with that plan.

Perhaps we should consider a different writing assignment that better represents the difficult political realities. Rather than advising Commissioner Wentzell, what would happen if you reframed the assignment to pose the question from the perspective of the Sheff plaintiffs, and their lead attorney, Martha Stone? Maybe the writing prompt would look something like this:

Nearly two decades have passed since the 1996 Sheff ruling that affirmed Hartford students’ constitutional right to quality integrated schools. Yet the Sheff plaintiffs and their allies have struggled to pressure Connecticut’s governor and legislature to comply with the state supreme court’s order. The road to a remedy is not even halfway complete, with less than 45 percent of the city’s Black and Latino students enrolled in interdistrict magnet and Open Choice suburban schools. Recently, Democratic Governor Malloy’s administration has sought to remove court oversight of the Sheff remedy, stop new magnet school construction, and reduce Open Choice funding. Given this context, what strategies do you recommend for the Sheff plaintiffs?

Indeed, that’s a harder essay to compose, because it’s written for the people who have less power in this dynamic, not the more powerful ones at the State Capitol. But you’ve given me some ideas about what we all need to work on, and perhaps I do something similar with my students at Trinity next semester.

Housing Mobility App at the Fair Housing Association of Connecticut

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logo_ocaErin Boggs from the Connecticut Open Communities Alliance invited me to co-present at the 36th annual conference of the Fair Housing Association of Connecticut.

Slides from Erin’s presentation:


See also links I shared during my presentation:

CT OCA, Mobility Counseling,

Housing Mobility counseling in Baltimore:

Stefanie DeLuca’s report on Baltimore,

OCA-MobilityAppCT OCA, Mobility App tool, designed to help housing counselors guide housing voucher recipients to higher-opportunity neighborhoods

Jack Dougherty and contributors, Data Visualization for All, open-access book-in-progress,

Jack Dougherty and contributors, On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, open-access book-in-progress, 2015),