Busing in Seattle: A Well-Intentioned Failure

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 9/07/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3939

In 1972, the Seattle School District launched the first phase of what became a decades-long experiment with mandatory busing to integrate its schools. Initially limited to a few thousand middle school students, by 1981 nearly 40 percent of all the district's students were being bused for racial reasons. School officials defended busing against several legal challenges but gradually scaled back the program in response to waning public support. The district's own data showed that busing disproportionately burdened children of color, undercut academic achievement, inhibited parental involvement, contributed to so-called "white flight," and did little to reduce racial isolation in the schools. By 1999, when race-based busing finally ended in Seattle, it was widely regarded as "one of those well-intentioned social experiments that don't work" (Morrill interview).

A Racial Dividing Line

The roots of Seattle's long and still unfinished effort to achieve racial balance in the public schools lay in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1954 case of Brown v Board of Education. In that legendary ruling, the court held that segregated schools are inherently unequal and unconstitutional. Seattle lawyer Philip L. Burton (1915-1995) cited Brown in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) against the Seattle School Board in 1962.

Decades of discrimination in housing had created an increasingly segregated school system in Seattle. The Lake Washington Ship Canal had become a de facto racial dividing line, with students of color concentrated in schools south of the canal. At Garfield High School, for example, 51 percent of the students in 1961 were African Americans, compared to 5.3 percent of the students in the district as a whole.

The NAACP lawsuit was settled out of court in 1963 when the School Board adopted a program allowing students to voluntarily transfer from one school to another to ease racial imbalances. However, the effort resulted in little movement of students of color into North End schools and even less movement of white students into South End schools.

"Magnet Programs"

The board next tried the idea of enticing white students to minority schools by implementing "magnet programs," beginning with Garfield in 1968. This, too had limited success, at least initially.

In the late 1960s, civil rights activists were split on the issue of how the School Board could best promote integration and, with it, intercultural empathy and understanding. One side, represented by the Central Area Civil Rights Committee -- a group of established African American leaders -- advocated closing predominantly black elementary schools in the South End and moving the students to predominantly white schools in the North End. Another side opposed most desegregation plans because they put the burden of integration on black students. Some people called for the expansion of special programs to encourage voluntary transfers. Others believed more coercive measures were needed to overcome years of ingrained patterns.

Faced with the threat of further legal action from advocates of integration, the School Board took its first tentative steps toward mandatory busing on November 11, 1970, adopting a Middle School Desegregation Plan that involved busing about 2,000 middle school students. Implementation of the plan was delayed for two years by a lawsuit filed by Citizens Against Mandatory Busing, the first of several anti-busing groups that would be organized during the coming years.

The specter shadowing the board during these years was the possibility of federal intervention. Federal judges had shown increasing willingness to impose their own desegregation plans on cities around the country during the 1960s and 1970s, despite often fierce local resistance. In Boston, for example, a federal judge took control of the school system and ordered a massive cross-town busing plan in June 1974. When buses from black neighborhoods pulled up to high schools in white neighborhoods that fall, police had to escort the black teenagers past a gauntlet of angry white people throwing rocks, bottles, and insults.

The Seattle Plan

In April 1977, civil rights groups again threatened to file a lawsuit if the Seattle School District did not initiate a more effective integration program. "We had tried 'separate but equal' over the years and we know that separate is not equal," Lacy Steele, then president of the Seattle branch of the NAACP, recalled. "It never has been and never will be" (Siqueland, 23). The School Board responded with what became known as the Seattle Plan, expanding the busing program to include all the schools in the district. The plan was approved by a vote of six to one on December 14, 1977. The action made Seattle the largest city in the United States to voluntarily undertake district-wide desegregation through mandatory busing.

The Seattle Plan was launched on a wave of optimism and good intentions, with support from a broad coalition of political leaders and community groups, including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Urban League, the Chamber of Commerce, the Municipal League, the League of Women Voters, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and both the outgoing and the newly elected mayors. It went into effect in September 1978 with little of the contentiousness and none of the violence associated with mandatory busing in other parts of the country. "We have not had anything near the controversy we anticipated," said Dan Riley, the school district's director of student relations. "We haven't had any screamers. We've had some seethers -- a stew kind of boiling -- but no significant tantrums" (The Seattle Times, 1978).

However, six weeks later, an anti-busing initiative sponsored by the Citizens for Voluntary Integration Committee (CiVIC) passed with the approval of 61 percent of the city's voters (and 66 percent statewide). The initiative was declared unconstitutional, in a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, but the vote showed that acceptance of busing was neither as broad nor as deep as its advocates had hoped. "No one should be lulled into believing that because schools opened peacefully, without violence, that there is support for this crazy busing nonsense," said Robert O. Dorse, a Seattle businessman and president of CiVIC. "This only means that Seattleites are law-abiding and have faith in our democratic system" (The Seattle Times, 1978).

The plan was based on a complicated formula that defined segregation in terms of the ratio of white to nonwhite students in the school district. In 1977, 65 percent of the district's students were white; by 1995, the proportion had dropped to 40 percent (where it remains). This led to a gradual increase in what, officially, constituted segregation. In 1977, a "racially imbalanced" school was one where more than 55 percent of the students were children of color. By 1995, a school could be up to 85 percent nonwhite and still be considered integrated.

"White Flight"

The percentage of whites in the Seattle schools had been decreasing since the 1960s for a variety of reasons, including the end of the post-World War II baby boom, lower birth rates among whites, comparatively higher birth rates among people of color, and increases in immigration, especially from Southeast Asia. Additionally, expansion of highways made suburbs more attractive to middle-class families seeking an escape from high taxes, crime rates, and other problems in the city.

But it was also clear that some white parents were taking their children out of public schools in Seattle simply because they did not want them bused out of their neighborhoods. In the first year of district-wide busing, the number of white students dropped by nearly 12 percent compared to the previous year, reducing total enrollment by 10 percent. Both the percentage of white students and the overall number of students fell steadily during the years of mandatory busing.

In an effort to reduce so-called "white flight," the district added more and more "options" intended to appeal to middle-class parents, from "alternative" classrooms to programs for gifted students. The number of schools offering such options increased from 27 in 1977 to 57 in 1982. The increase added to the costs of busing (the district spent more than $3 a day per student to bus options students, who came from all over town, compared to $1.89 for mandatorily assigned students, who came from the same neighborhood). It also had the effect of diluting the desegregation program. Most of the students in options programs were white. As a result, segregated classrooms persisted even in technically integrated schools.

"You'd see the top tier of classes and the bottom tier," says Donald Felder, principal of the Interagency Academy, a program for at-risk students in the Seattle school district. "In the name of trying to get integrated schools, white families were offered the best of the best if they'd bring their kids to school with children of color. Very few children of color prospered in that position. Many white children took advantage of what was offered and thrived" (Felder interview).

In theory, the Seattle Plan was a "deck shuffle," applying uniformly to all students. In practice, it amounted largely to shuffling nonwhite students from the South End to the North End. The parents of white children were far more likely to manipulate the system and avoid an undesirable school assignment, or abandon the system altogether for the suburbs or for private schools. A five-year review of the Seattle Plan showed that only about half the students in mandatory assignments were showing up; the rest were either moving into options programs or moving out of the public schools. As retired University of Washington geographer Richard Morrill, author of a 1989 study commissioned by the school district, puts it, "There were way too many escape routes" (Morrill interview).

"Controlled Choice"

The initial opposition to race-based busing came primarily from white parents living in racially homogeneous neighborhoods. By the late 1980s, the voices of dissent were coming from all sides, including some of the same white liberals and African Americans who had originally endorsed busing. Critics complained that the Seattle Plan unfairly burdened children of color; contributed to a widening achievement gap between white and minority students; undermined public confidence in the schools, particularly among middle-class parents; left some schools under-enrolled while others were over-enrolled, and was too costly and complex. In 1988, the School Board responded to the escalating criticism by replacing the Seattle Plan with a "controlled-choice" system. The new plan allowed parents to select schools for their children from within a prescribed cluster of schools -- as long as their choice maintained racial balance.

Still, the controversy continued, becoming a key issue in the mayoral race in Seattle the following year. The front-running candidate, City Attorney Doug Jewett, strongly supported a local initiative to give the school district 6 percent of all city revenue in return for an end to mandatory busing, with the money to be used to improve neighborhood schools. City Councilman Norm Rice, an African American, entered the race as a defender of busing. Voters delivered a mixed message on busing, electing Rice but also approving the anti-busing initiative. (The School Board later turned down the extra money, meaning the initiative had no effect.)

By the early 1990s, some of the most vocal critics of mandatory busing were African Americans, including the charismatic John H. Stanford (1938-1998), superintendent of Seattle schools from 1995 to 1998. In a key presentation to the School Board in November 1995, Stanford said the data showed that low-income students who attended schools outside their neighborhoods scored lower on achievement tests than low-income students in neighborhood schools. Furthermore, parental involvement in the schools was lowest among bused students, who often needed it the most.

Stanford also noted that about one-fourth of Seattle's school-aged children were enrolled in private schools, a far higher percentage than in comparable cities without mandatory busing. In some white, middle-class neighborhoods in Seattle, only about half the children were choosing public over private schools, compared to 90 percent of those in racially mixed, poorer neighborhoods. Stanford urged the board to put more emphasis on the quality of the education in the classroom and less on the color of the skin on the students. "I don't have to sit next to someone of another color to learn," he said, in an oft-quoted remark (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1999).

End of the Ride

The end of mandatory busing came as quietly and peacefully as its beginning. Between 1997 and 1999, the School Board essentially threw out zoning lines, allowing any of the district's students to attend any school they wanted -- so long as they could get into it. A system of "tiebreakers," one of which is race, was adopted to determine admission to schools with more applicants than space.

Although it involves far fewer students (applying to only about 300 students in 2001), the racial tiebreaker has proven to be almost as controversial as mandatory busing. A lawsuit filed in 2000 by a group called Parents Involved in Community Schools claims race-based school assignments violate Initiative 200, a 1998 voter-approved measure that bans racial preferences in public education, employment, and contracting. In April 2002, a federal appeals court judge agreed, and said the old Seattle Plan would be a more acceptable way of promoting integration than the tiebreaker. However, his opinion was set aside two months later. The legal jousting continues, as of September 2002, with the matter now before the State Supreme Court.

Donald Felder was among those who reacted to the judge's comment with incredulity. "Busing perpetuated segregation and inequity even though technically the schools were integrated," he says. "It was just a complete failure." Felder has worked as a teacher or administrator for the Seattle School District since 1972. He himself was bused, on a voluntary basis, when he transferred from Garfield High School to Cleveland in 1968. His three children were bused as part of the Seattle Plan in the late 1970s and 1980s. Asked to speak about the benefits of busing, he has this to say, tongue in cheek: "Children got into the routine of getting up early in the morning. They got to see Seattle's traffic problems first hand. They got to have fun on the bus ride. Some very close friendships were developed. That's where I learned to become a comedian, on that bus ride to Cleveland" (Felder interview).


Ann LaGrelius Siqueland, Without a Court Order: The Desegregation of Seattle's Schools (Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1981); Laura Kohn, Priority Shift: The Fate of Mandatory Busing for School Desegregation in Seattle and the Nation (Seattle: Institute for Public Policy and Management, Program on Re-inventing Public Education, University of Washington, 1996), available online at (www.crpe.org/publications/downloads/priorityshift_Kohn.pdf); Richard L Morrill, "School Busing and Demographic Change," Urban Geography, July-August 1989; Matthew Richer, "Busing's Boston Massacre," Policy Review, November/December 1998, available online at (http://www.policyreview.org/nov98/busing.html); Constantine Angelos, "Board Adopts 'Last Chance' School-desegregation Plan," The Seattle Times, December 15, 1977, p. A-1; Constantine Angelos, "Segregation in Seattle 5 Years Later," Ibid., September 11, 1983, p. A-1; Peter Lewis, "For Busing, It's Wait-and-See Time," Ibid., September 4, 1978, p. B-1; Constantine Angelos, "Desegregation Gets Rolling," Ibid., September 30, 1978, p. A-1; Karen West, "A Few Hitches But Buses Get Task Done," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 30, 1978, p. A-1; Kathy George, "Big Burden Of Busing Falls On Minorities, Stanford Points Out," Ibid., November 2, 1995, p. B-1; Ruth Teichroeb, "End to Forced Busing Creates New Problems for Seattle's Schools," Ibid., June 3, 1999, (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/race03.shtml); Keith Ervin, "Seattle School Assignments Using Race Are Ruled Illegal," The Seattle Times, April 17, 2002, (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Keith Erwin, "School Board to Weigh Other Options to Reach Racial Diversity," Ibid., April 21, 2002; Seattle Times Staff, "Timeline of Seattle School District's Efforts," April 17, 2002, Ibid.; Cassandra Tate interview with Richard Morrill, Seattle, July 27, 2002; Cassandra Tate interview with Donald Felder, Seattle, July 28, 2002.

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