Fighting again for busing in Boston

June 10, 2014

Sofia Arias reports from Boston after a public meeting where parents, students and education workers came together to oppose another cutback in our schools.

IT'S 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and 40 years since federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity ruled that Boston Public Schools (BPS) were unconstitutionally segregated and would need to be integrated through busing.

But on June 2, around 100 mostly Black and Brown residents of Boston attended a meeting where public school officials explained that 4,500 seventh- and eighth-grade middle school students would no longer get free school busing. Instead, the children will ride Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) buses and trains to get to school every day, for a cost savings of $8 million, according to school officials.

Instead of regular pickup and drop-off times, children would be given passes for the MBTA system. School bus drivers would no longer accompany the 12- and 13-year-old children from their homes to school and back. Instead, BPS officials said, volunteers would accompany the students along public transportation routes.

School officials pitched this change as more convenient and faster for students. They talked about how students in parochial schools, exam schools and Boston Latin already used the MBTA. Parents were encouraged to opt in their sixth graders into the program, as well.

Buses pick up students in Boston
Buses pick up students in Boston (Boston Public Schools)

This meeting wasn't asking for feedback on a proposal--the decision had been made, with travel training for students scheduled to begin this month, though the City Council could still block the move by BPS. School officials invited parents to use the district's MBTA orientation program, which would allow parents to accompany their children on buses and trains to the first day of school. A total of one hour was allotted for public comments.

The room wasn't big enough to contain the anger of the 30 people who lined up to speak. One after another, without exception, they made their opposition plain, with support from the large audience.

PARENTS, COMMUNITY organizers and union bus drivers raised a number of questions: What plans had been made for keeping children safe in the winter? Why was this the first time anyone had suggested the MBTA program was developmentally appropriate for middle schoolers? How could anyone expect "convenience" and "safety" for middle-school students using the MBTA when service is notoriously bad for everyone, with a bus system that is never on time and without enough vehicles to operate all routes effectively, because of budget cuts?

Others pointed out that the MBTA had installed Plexiglas barriers to protect bus drivers from unsafe passengers--how could parents expect their children to be safe if the MBTA didn't consider its own employees safe? Others asked a more basic question: why did they need to beg the school district to keep their children safe in the first place?

Members of Mothers for Justice and Equality, a support group for women who have lost their children to street violence, demanded to know why the school district never asked the opinions of parents about the program. They also wanted to know whether police would be given new training, since their children, mainly Black and Brown, would be encountering officers on their way to school.

"I want my tax money spent on my child's safety," said one of the mothers. "If they can't take care of our children, we're going to shut it down. If the bus drivers go on strike, every parent needs to go on strike with them."

A former BPS employee spoke about the lack of respect for families of color and the poor: "Why don't you have hearings in every neighborhood asking us what we think? Why are you bringing us here to tell us about a decision you've already made? Does BPS care about our children? For our homeless and practically starving families?"

A grandfather of a special needs child was next. He said that special needs children are already losing their Individualized Education Programs at the same time, and warned, "If you're not ready for a lawsuit, don't ask for one."

A bus driver got up to the podium to voice his opposition to the impossible situation that single mothers would be forced into: "Don't put the savings on our children. Many of these mothers are single parents. There's no single parent who can do a travel run, and then get to a job and not be late. And if they lose their job, the city for sure is not going to hire them."

It was hard not to remember the scenes of violence against Black children in Boston during the 1970s struggles against education apartheid when a young mother, choking back tears, pleaded, "My husband works out of state. I'm not from Massachusetts. I'm responsible for taking care of my babies. I cannot have BPS shipping her on the MBTA to Charlestown. She's not riding in the dark."

In comment after comment, the safety of school children was connected to the job security of bus drivers and the concerns of parents, such as the fear of losing more lives to the racist priorities of a city that has pursued budget cuts and fee hikes at a rate only matched by its expansion of policing in communities of color:

"You should be horrified and ashamed. The bus drivers know them by name. They're like their parents. You're saying you're going to have someone in a vest pick them up? Not enough."

"Is this money going to go to law enforcement? This money needs to go to our children's safety."

"Did you cut private schools and charters? No! The MBTA doesn't care about our children. We've been trying to get a low fare youth pass for seven years. And they haven't given it to us. What do the police do? Brutalize our children."

"The police can't protect our children. I'm a parent, grandparent and bus driver. I grew up here--I don't know where you grew up. You only think about the almighty dollar. Leave the children in our neighborhoods alone. If you want to mess with children, go mess with them in the suburbs."

THERE WAS also bitter anger about the number of schools that have been closed and privatized in privatized. When one woman demanded to know why the cuts were coming out of the most basic of services, and why the money couldn't come from some other place, her question was met by a one-word answer from someone in the audience: "Charters!"

At a couple of points, the speakers' words were punctuated by chants from activists, taken up throughout the audience: "Fight, fight, fight, education is a human right!" and "Bus, train, trolley, our pockets always empty!"

Other attendees who spoke at the meeting made the connections to past civil rights struggles. In fact, a number of bus drivers had been part of the struggle to desegregate Boston Public Schools in the 1970s, transporting Black children to white schools despite a hail of rocks or other attacks.

Meanwhile, the City Council that decided on the fate of the school busing program is still filled with bigots who opposed desegregating Boston schools in the 1970s. At a particularly shameful City Council meeting in May, three Council members, including Council President Bill Linehan, abstained from a vote honoring the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

At the June 2 meeting, a member of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice reminded people that one of the grievances in the Brown case was parents demanding buses for their children to ride safely to schools several miles from their homes, because they couldn't go to the white schools nearby.

Members of the NAACP noted they had attended four presentations from the school district, all of them focused around PowerPoint presentations about traffic lights, crosswalks and volunteers in bright and colorful vests, while saying nothing was said about street safety and bullying.

They noted that Boston was planning to implement a program similar to Chicago's "Safe Passage" program, introduced after a record 50 elementary schools were closed around the city in 2013, forcing students to walk longer distances. Early this year, a 15-year-old Chicago Public School student was attacked and raped while walking in the pre-dawn darkness, half a mile away from a "Safe Passage" school route.

An NAACP representative pointed out that an Illinois legislator introduced legislation calling for the expansion of school bus service to cover every child who had to walk through a "Safe Passage" zone.

Meanwhile, bus drivers talked about how the city's $8 million cuts to the busing program would give more power to the union-busting efforts of Veolia, the corporation that took over management of school transportation and locked out bus drivers last year, firing and disciplining workers, along with a steady stream of other attacks and contract violations.

THIS ATTACK on busing should be understood as part of a years-long process of re-segregation, presented to the public with romanticized promotion of "neighborhood schools." Boston's new Mayor Marty Walsh took over where former Mayor Thomas Menino left off, further entrenching the social, economic and racial isolation of Boston's poor and working class communities of color in already neglected parts of the city.

Cuts to the METCO program, which for decades has provided busing for children from the city to get to suburban schools, has resulted in waiting lists of no less than 10,000 children.

In 2012, the city rewrote its zoning process for school assignments, eliminating the previous flexibility that allowed BPS students to be bused widely across three zones. Now, for a savings of millions of dollars, students are locked more tightly in place--their inability to move to other schools has resulted in more overcrowded classrooms.

Public schools lose tens of millions of dollars every year to charter schools expanding in buildings with existing schools or replacing them where they're been closed. The state legislature could well lift the cap on more of them.

We need more of the anger and solidarity expressed at the June 2 meeting to be channeled into organizing to defend busing programs--and public education in general.

Angry parents, teachers and community members were told to pressure the City Council to block the cuts to school busing. That would be an important step, but we must also look to the legacy of the struggle of Black and Brown parents, students, teachers and workers who made these programs possible in the first place.

In a article, Brian Jones recalled that struggle in Boston in the 1960s:

[N]early 2,500 Black students stayed out of city schools in 1963 to protest racial segregation. A second boycott saw 20,000 participate and led to the passage of the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, which "forbade the commonwealth from supporting any school that was more than 50 percent white (although the act considered majority or all- white schools racially balanced)."

Before the METCO program was institutionalized and known as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, it was Operation Exodus, formed in 1965 by Black parents and civil rights activists frustrated by the intransigence of the all-white Boston School Committee. Operation Exodus organized voluntary busing of hundreds of Black children from Roxbury and Dorchester to the predominantly white and under-enrolled Faneuil School in Back Bay.

Parent boycotts, student strikes, marches and freedom schools were all part of a civil rights movement whose struggles we must look to again, in the face of these latest attacks. As one Boston bus driver said at the June 2 meeting, before he gave back the microphone: "Dr. King is still alive, Malcolm X still alive, Rosa Parks--they are all here, still alive with us."

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