Complicating the politics, school buses have their roots in a very different philosophy. More than just machines for moving children around, they have often been tools for social engineering. Busing took off in the 1930s, as progressive education officials sought to close one-room rural schoolhouses and move kids to “modern” township schools. Visitors to the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, can see a handsome school bus used in pre-war Indiana. Some rural parents feared the new schools would bring higher taxes and alien values, the museum notes: they were overruled. Even their uniform colour dates back to a meeting of experts in New York in 1939, who deemed bright yellow the most visible shade at dawn and dusk, setting a standard now known as “National School Bus Chrome”. The civil-rights era saw furious protests as courts ordered schoolkids bused across once-inviolable racial lines.
A series of desegregation plans explain why Fort Wayne has rather a large school bus fleet (it has 240 now, serving a district with 30,000 pupils). A first plan saw black pupils carried from the inner city to white suburban secondary schools. That “one-way busing” did not bring about a “kumbaya moment” of racial or educational equality, recalls Fort Wayne’s school superintendent, Wendy Robinson, who was raised in the city. A more ambitious desegregation plan, agreed to after a lawsuit in the 1980s, opened “magnet schools” in the inner city, offering such specialisms as science or a Montessori education. The aim was to create schools that both urban and suburban families wanted to attend, giving kids from all backgrounds a reason to jump on the bus.
Fort Wayne spent $281,352,667 (2015 budget pdf) or $9,378 per student for 30,000 students during the 2015 budget. Madison, the land of milk and honey, spent more than $15,000 per student during the same year.