Opinion - Politics

The Kamala Harris-Joe Biden busing battle could turn into a win for Democrats

Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

It may look like the Kamala Harris-Joe Biden spat over 1970s-era school busing policies is just a fight about the past. But the dispute could actually lead to bipartisan clarity, and a winning national issue.

During the first Democratic presidential debate, Harris criticized Biden's stance against busing during his early years as a U.S. senator. Biden later complained that he wasn't prepared for the jab, which he said was "taken out context" of his overall civil rights record. But Harris isn't backing down. She told ABC's "The View" she's not letting Biden off the hook, adding that had she been in the Senate in the 1970s, she and Biden would have been on opposite sides.

Here's the thing: Biden and Harris are both right – and they're both wrong.

Harris is right to point out that busing was an important part in fighting school segregation. With predominantly white schools in white neighborhoods and predominantly black schools in black areas, it was necessary to find some way to get black students to those white schools. Government-funded busing was a logical step in that direction.

It's a good thing Harris brought up the issue, even if she only did it to undercut Biden, who has been leading Democratic primary polls. Almost 50 years after busing became a national issue, the larger problem of improving educational opportunities for all still plagues us.

But Harris is fundamentally wrong when she makes it sound like desegregation is more than a means to a better end.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that public schools had to be integrated, integration was just the tool to provide equal educational opportunities to black students. Remember, the ruling overturned the long-standing "separate but equal" fallacy entrenched in U.S. law for 58 years by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896. Segregation wasn't the point; the point was how segregation denied black children their right to a good education. Busing didn't become a part of Supreme Court-approved policy until the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision.

Biden is right that opposition to busing wasn't necessarily rooted in racism. He correctly notes many black families came to oppose the policy as it dragged their children long distances from home and the new schools they went to often weren't better. That part of his argument comes close to hitting the essential fact Harris leaves out of her busing comments. Busing may have integrated schools, but it didn't always achieve the real goal of providing equal education.

In fact, all forms of school integration have seen mixed results. A 2016 study published by Brookings Institution argues that black students bused into predominantly white school districts don't necessarily benefit educationally.

So what's a better solution? The answer includes advocating for more charter schools and providing minority and poorer families with government vouchers to pay for private school education.

The biggest reason more Democratic politicians have soured on charter schools and vouchers seems to be campaign money. Teachers unions oppose charter schools and vouchers. Those unions are among the leading donors to Democratic candidates, with a surging amount of total campaign spending over the past decade. The biggest national teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers were both among the top 15 donors to candidates in the 2018 election cycle, with almost all of their combined $51.7 million going to Democrats. In 2016, those unions were both in the top 11 donors, and almost all of their combined $64 million went to Democrats.

But Democratic voters aren't so unified on the issue. Polls show black and Latino Democrats support charter schools by clear margins. Other polls show a majority of all voters support more charter schools and vouchers.

Here's the good news for a courageous and smart 2020 Democratic candidate: the donor-voter dichotomy presents a fantastic persuasive opportunity in the primaries, beginning with the crucial South Carolina primary in February.

Sen. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden spar over record on race

South Carolina is the first Democratic primary in 2020 where the majority of Democrat voters will be black, (60%). With a plurality of black Democrats in favor of more school choice, any primary candidate could make a decisive move to buck the union money and support the issue. Doing so would be an especially smart move for Harris or Biden, in light of their busing tussle.

Beyond South Carolina, supporting school choice is a way for any Democrat to win southern primaries in which black voters are keys to victory. In the general election, it could help win over moderate and even conservative voters, without losing the key minority Democrat base. How many other issues are there where a Democrat can do that?

The bottom line is a rare bipartisan majority of voters in America want tax money spent improving educational access. A government that was once willing to spend money on busing should now be willing to use that money more wisely, give it to parents who want better opportunities for their kids, and leave the driving to them.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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