On November 20, 1996, the Seattle School Board votes unanimously to end mandatory busing for the purpose of racial desegregation in elementary schools, beginning with the 1997-1998 school year. Two years later, on November 4, 1998, the board dismantles the last remnants of the so-called "Seattle Plan," ending race-based busing of students in middle and high schools as of the 1999-2000 school year.
Busing began in 1978 as a means of desegregating Seattle schools. Students of schools with large minority populations did not perform as well academically as students from schools with predominantly white populations. Federal case law since Brown v. Board of Education (1954) held that school districts might have to send children outside their neighborhoods to desegregate schools even if there was no intention to discriminate. The Seattle School Board voluntarily adopted a busing plan to avoid litigation. Seattle became the largest U.S. city to voluntarily desegregate.
In 1989, Seattle voters narrowly approved Initiative 34, which recommended to the school board that parents be allowed to send their children to neighborhood schools, effectively ending busing. The school board left busing intact. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions made it easier for districts to end busing.
Busing did not improve the academic performance of minorities who shouldered a disproportionate burden of busing. Parental involvement in cross-town schools did not increase and the financial costs of the program also hurt the district.
In 1992, the board approved a controlled assignment plan that allowed students to choose their own schools, even if attendance required a bus ride. In 1993, the school district was permitted to have as many as 82 percent of children of color in a school, up from a maximum of 78 percent. By 1995, 18,000 of the district's 45,000 students took a bus to school, but fewer than 500 were bused for desegregation purposes. The rest of the students had chosen their schools.
By 1996, the end of forced busing was seen by the board as a way to improve neighborhood identity, and to increase parental involvement and customer satisfaction. The board also hoped to stem the flow of white families leaving the district and the city. It would also be a significant savings in money.
In 1999, after the first full year of no forced busing, south Seattle schools were flooded with neighborhood children, most from poor families. One-third of the district's 61 elementary schools had 80 percent or more minority students. Money and staff were directed to the schools serving low-income students.
"Before, we moved the kids to where the resources were," said Joseph Olchefske, Seattle schools superintendent. "Now we're moving the resources to the kids. We want quality education close to home" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).