When initial efforts to racially integrate the Waco Independent School District (WISD) proved insufficient in bringing about educational equality, community members like Pete D. Arvizu took to the courts in protest. The resulting legal battle, Arvizu v. WISD, stood as part of a series of court decisions in the early 1970s that, among other measures, mandated bilingual education as a form of relief from the damages of illegal segregation. In doing so it helped define what that integration process would entail for minority students of African and Hispanic descent.
Following the creation of America’s first public school system in 1837, racial segregation dominated the nation’s educational landscape. Even after the abolition of slavery, Supreme Court decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) effectively sanctioned segregated education by ruling that “separate but equal” schools were an acceptable and beneficial form of racial division. As a result, African American students were unable to benefit from America’s developing public school system. Furthermore, while Hispanic students were largely classified as white for the purposes of segregation, many faced discriminatory treatment and did not have access to resources, such as English language instruction, to aid in their academic growth.
After civil rights activists fought for more than a half century to dismantle legislated segregation, the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, declaring race-based school segregation unconstitutional. Despite the enormity of this judicial victory, many school districts resisted the court order to take steps toward school integration. Waco was one such community.
While desegregation efforts in Waco officially began in 1963, the district was slow to change. By the fall of 1968, the majority of schools operated under de facto segregation, with the racial makeup of students and staff falling dismally below federal standards. It was not until December of 1970 that the school board of the Waco Independent School District drafted a comprehensive integration plan. Similar to many integration plans across the nation, the district relied upon busing to achieve appropriate racial representation in each school. Many in Waco’s black and Mexican American communities, however, found the new busing patterns problematic as students were transported to schools far from their homes, often being forced to leave before daylight and arrive home late into the afternoon.
The new integration plan left several racially identifiable schools, which, parents argued, kept segregation alive in the education system. The plan also required a disproportionately large number of minority students to be bused to new schools, while most white students remained in their neighborhood schools. While federal courts had declared that Mexican American students were minorities for the purposes of desegregation, districts often used Hispanic students to reach desegregation quotas without integrating Anglo students as well. However, when Mexican American students were integrated into majority-Anglo schools, they were often taken away from the few bilingual learning resources that did exist.
Pete Arvizu, whose residence is shown on the map below, and other concerned parents began to file lawsuits against the Waco Independent School District in late summer 1971. In February of 1972, US District Judge Jack Roberts combined two major lawsuits—one primarily made up of Mexican American plaintiffs and the other primarily composed of African American plaintiffs—given the similarity of the two cases. The plaintiffs demanded that the school system appropriately distribute students, hire more minority teachers, and abolish disparate school facilities. After over a year of examination and public hearings, Roberts ruled in 1973 that “vestiges of segregation” did indeed still exist in WISD. The court found that of the 35 district schools, 15 were racially identifiable, with over 50 percent minority students. Minority representation among faculty and staff also fell short of standards. Of the 6,000 students who were to be bused, more than 5,000 of them were black.
Just as such segregation limited the potential of African Americans to succeed, the court found that Mexican American students, as a minority group had also suffered discrimination and disadvantage, were “entitled to proper implementation of steps necessary to assure them the equal protection of the laws and an equal educational opportunity.” Given that the absence of bilingual education stymied the future potential of English language learners, the court ordered that Mexican American students be provided with a special curriculum and bilingual educational programs.
The district largely complied with Judge Roberts’ directives, but some Wacoans were unhappy with the new realities of school integration. Enrollment in the school system decreased by around two-thousand, or more than 10 percent, between the 1972-73 and 1973-74 school years. In Waco and across the nation, the mass exodus of white families out of cities and into suburbs reduced the effectiveness of integration approaches such as busing. Many Waco-area families flocked to what would become the Midway Independent School District. In addition, many white families moved their children to private or parochial schools following the desegregation of public schools.
White and black families alike continued to express anger at being forced to send their children to schools in distant neighborhoods when other schools stood close by. They claimed that busing was ineffective, disorganized, and undermined neighborhood and community spirit. After the 1980s, education policy began to shift away from busing, and some school districts began to adopt new tactics to promote diversity and equal educational opportunity, such as the opening of magnet schools. The realities of public school life continued to shift in the decades following Waco’s initial attempts at integration. Arvizu v. WISD and other integration efforts ushered in a new era in American public education and bore results that are still visible to this day.