On June 16, 1989, an anti-busing group called Save Our Schools launches a campaign to end the use of mandatory busing for desegregation in the Seattle School District, asking the voters to approve a local anti-busing initiative (Initiative 34) in November.
The group had been organized two days earlier by Seattle City Attorney Doug Jewett, a Republican candidate in the hotly contested mayoral race. Its main mission was to put pressure on the Seattle School Board to abandon its “controlled choice” desegregation plan and replace it with an open enrollment system that would allow students to attend any school they wanted. Jewett’s support of what became known as Initiative 34 helped make him the front-runner in a field of 13 candidates for the nonpartisan office of mayor.
Initiative 34 provided that the school district receive 6 percent of all city revenue in return for an end to mandatory busing, with the money to be used to improve neighborhood schools. In the words of a Seattle Times writer, “the initiative arced like an artillery shell over a confused battlefield.” To some, it signaled salvation for a troubled school district; to others, only more destruction. It quickly became the main issue in the mayoral campaign.
Katherine Baxter, director of Save Our Schools, acknowledged that the initiative would be difficult to implement. “But if you have an imperfect solution,” she said, “which side are you going to side on? The side of the district-mandated plan or the side of the plan that emphasizes parent empowerment?” (The Seattle Times).
Opponents argued that the initiative would “resegregate” the schools, violate federal civil rights laws, and put the district at risk of losing millions in state and federal dollars.
The debate took place against a background of increasing concern about so-called “white flight” from Seattle’s public schools. The percentage of white students in the district had fallen from 81.3 percent in 1969 -- the year before the district adopted a limited mandatory busing plan -- to 45.4 percent in 1989.
Voters sent a mixed message on election day, November 7, 1989, electing Norm Rice (by a substantial margin), but also passing Initiative 34 (narrowly). Rice became Seattle’s first African American mayor with 58 percent of the vote. He ran strongly in most of the city’s voting districts, including what had been presumed to be Jewett strongholds in predominately white neighborhoods in the North End.
The initiative squeaked by with less than a 1 percent margin of victory. However, six weeks later, the School Board turned down the extra money, meaning the initiative had no effect. The “controlled choice” integration plan remained in effect until it was phased out and replaced with an open enrollment plan between 1997 and 1999.