New data from USD 259 show that K-12 enrollment in the district has reached a 10-year high. As in most recent years, this increase is due primarily to a rise in the number of Hispanic students, who will soon, for the first time, comprise a majority of students in the city’s schools.
Wichita’s schools are more diverse today than they have ever been. Unfortunately, that greater degree of racial and ethnic diversity has not resulted in greater integration. In fact, segregation between black and white students continues to rise.
As in many cities, efforts at racial integration in Wichita’s schools have endured a long and contested history. For years, black students in northeast Wichita were bused to schools in other parts of the city, while some white students were selected by a lottery to attend schools in heavily black neighborhoods. This busing program was extremely controversial.
Some black families objected because their children bore most of the burden of desegregation, spending the most time on buses and attending schools far away from their homes. Some white families objected, because they saw busing as an unfair intrusion of government into their choices about where to send their children to school.
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There were certainly both benefits and drawbacks to Wichita’s busing program, as there were in cities nationwide. But for all its problems, busing did successfully achieve its desegregation objective.
In the 1988-89 school year, among the public school districts of the 100 largest American cities, Wichita’s was the least segregated, and it remained among the least segregated through the middle of the past decade. Since that time, though, the district has moved steadily toward the middle of the pack.
Beginning in the 2008-09 school year, USD 259 did away with its busing initiative. In that year, segregation between black and white students rose by 24 percent over the previous year’s level. Today, segregation between blacks and whites in USD 259 is nearly three times as high as it had been in the late 1980s.
It is important to note that Wichita’s school-segregation levels remain far lower than those of many major American cities, and it is unlikely that USD 259 will ever become as segregated as districts in cities such as Newark, Atlanta or Chicago. Still, the rise in segregation in Wichita is troubling.
When the busing program ended in 2008, an Eagle editorial warned that “the administration and school board must be unflagging in their commitment to ensure that the district does not end up with resegregated and inequitable schools.” As enrollment data continue to point to increased segregation between black and white students, it is now time for city and school leaders to redouble their efforts toward integration.
Promoting racial integration in schools has become more challenging since the U.S. Supreme Court limited the degree to which districts can take race into account when assigning students to schools, so a return to race-based busing in Wichita is unlikely. As the demographic makeup of schools today is determined more than ever by residential segregation patterns and parental choice, encouraging integration today will require working through those two avenues of action.
If the district wants to encourage integration through choice, it should expand its efforts to provide information to all parents, especially low-income and minority parents, about the choices available to them. More financial resources will be needed to improve all schools so that every school, in every neighborhood, is deemed worthy of selection by all parents.
Over the long term, the best way to reduce school segregation in a system relying primarily upon neighborhood-based student assignment is to reduce residential segregation. That will entail expanding homeownership opportunities for traditionally underserved groups and building new, attractive housing in segregated neighborhoods to facilitate greater social mixing.
With newfound dedication on the part of city leaders, school officials and parents, Wichita can return its schools to the low levels of segregation they enjoyed for many years, and can serve as a model for how to achieve urban school integration in the 21st century.
Chase M. Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.