When a yellow school bus rumbles by on busy Interstate 95 in Wilmington, Del., it ticks Wayne Smith off. Since he was first elected to Delaware's state legislature in 1990, Smith, 41, has crusaded to end this small city's unusual urban-suburban busing program, which was imposed by court order in 1978. Educators say the program has helped make Delaware's schools among the nation's most integrated. Smith says it has driven families out of public education and broken the color-blind promise of Brown. "Having grown up here, I just thought it was wrong to break up the local schools and destroy what had been focal points of communities for somebody else's ideal," says the investment banker and father of four.
Among the Brown localities, Delaware was the most welcoming to the notion of integration, at least in legal terms. Black parents in the suburb of Claymont in 1951 wanted their children to attend the school that was closest to their home--much as Smith says he wants for his children now--but that was a white school. Unlike in the other Brown cases, the state court ruled in favor of the black families, and it was the state board of education that appealed.
In the decades after Brown, as desegregation proceeded slowly and nonviolently in Delaware, white families began abandoning Wilmington for the suburbs. But by the time Smith was a high school junior in what he calls a "lily-white" neighborhood less than a mile from where he lives now, a federal court had ordered Wilmington's New Castle County to comply with one of the most invasive busing orders in the country--a plan that reorganized its 11 school districts into four systems, each of them part urban and part suburban. Under the order, all students had to attend school for three years in the city and nine years in the suburbs.
Again, many white families voted with their feet, moving this time to private schools or just over the Pennsylvania border. Today Delaware has one of the highest private-school attendance rates in the country, at 19%--and that number started its climb just as busing began. In Brandywine, the district where Smith's children attend school, 26% of families opt for private schools. In 1995 a federal judge ruled that Wilmington had achieved integration and lifted the court order. But by then much of the earlier tension had abated, and the four districts continued busing.
Yet Smith continued to hear from his constituents that they wanted a return to the way the county's schools were in the early '70s. Says Smith: "[Voters would] ask me, 'How come my kids can't go to the school that I can throw a stone at out my bedroom window? How come they're being sent away, riding down 95 because of their skin color?'" In 2000, after an emotional debate played out in the Op-Ed pages of the local paper and in public hearings, Smith pushed the Neighborhood Schools Act through the legislature. The law requires children in Delaware to attend the schools closest to their homes. So far 3 of the 4 affected districts have begun to comply with the law, but Brandywine, Smith's home district, has successfully made the case to the state school board that the law poses too great a hardship. Obeying the act, Brandywine officials said, would leave some of its schools almost entirely black and predominantly poor, and drive down the schools' test scores.