Precinct 333

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Wrong Focus In School Choice

It seems to me, speaking as a teacher, that the most important job of a school is educating it's students. Apparently they think differently on the matter down in Florida.

Pinellas County's school choice plan appears likely to fall short of its most important goal: preventing a return to racially segregated schools.

Though the plan is successfully integrating some schools, it has failed to work in many others, a Times analysis shows. Nearly three years into choice, large numbers of Pinellas families - white and black - have ignored the district's call to integrate voluntarily.

So the most important goal in Pinellas County is preserving an artificial racial mix, regardless of the wants and needs and desires of the students and their families. Rather than looking at schools as a social engineering program, the parents looked at it as an educational program designed to prepare their students for life. Rather than putting kids on a school bus for a trip across the county, they chose schools close to home. In other words, they made rational choices based upon family values, not upon some politically correct notion that kids of one race cannot learn to add or spell without kids of a different skin color sitting next to them.

If application trends hold true:

Several elementary schools in St. Petersburg would become predominantly black for the first time in more than 30 years.

More black students would attend Gibbs and Lakewood high schools, threatening to disrupt racial balances that have taken years to cultivate.

Two middle schools - Bay Point and John Hopkins - would face a similar challenge.

A number of elementary schools in south and mid Pinellas would become far less diverse. Some enrollments would go from majority white to almost exclusively white as black students continue to opt for schools closer to home. More than a dozen mid-county schools already have gone in that direction.

The choice plan prevents those changes from occurring now. A system of race ratios known as "controlled choice" keeps many schools artificially integrated. But those controls expire at the end of the 2006-07 school year.

After that, a powerful social dynamic will continue to work against diversity: Schools that get anywhere close to 50 percent black often become predominantly black because many white parents avoid schools where their children could be in the minority.

I find the analysis interesting. Black parents are opting "for schools close to home." White parents "avoid schools where their children would be in the minority." Upon what are these assertions based? Were parents interviewed to reach these conclusions? Or are they assumptions? Could it be that white parents who have seen their kids forced onto a school bus out of their neighborhood to achieve some artificial notion of equality would prefer that their kids be educated close to home? Might it be that black parents don't want their kids in the minority? Did you consider those possibilities when you wrote the article?

Under choice, schools try to entice families with "attractors," which are themes that run through the curriculum. Some attractors are proving far more marketable than others.

District officials acknowledge it is probably too late to prevent at least a temporary return to a school system with significant pockets of segregation.

The public's impulse to select schools close to home is simply too ingrained. And the district is approaching the end of a four-year phase-in period that was supposed to condition Pinellas families to look outside their neighborhoods for schools, thereby promoting integration.

imagine that. There is an "ingrained" preference for that which is close and convenient. I wonder, do folks who make such stupid statements travel cross-town for half an hour for an integrated grocery shopping experience, one where they will be exposed to a multi-cultural customer base? Or do they prefer going to the Krogers down the block, where they meet neighbors and can purchase the same products more conveniently? Don't answer -- we already know the common-sense answer to that question.

At least the superintendent Clayton Wilcox seems to be asking the correct questions.

He said it is time for Pinellas to ask fundamental questions about what is best for its schools.

Is it so bad for some schools to be nearly all-black if they get the same resources as predominantly white schools? Or is that heresy in a district that has worked for decades to stay racially integrated? What is Pinellas' definition of success when it comes to the racial makeup of schools?

Wilcox, who recently moved to Pinellas from a largely black district in Louisiana, wants to know.

He said he has talked to black people in Pinellas who say they wouldn't be bothered by segregated schools as long as they are equal in quality. He also has talked to people who insist that separate schools could never be equal.

Others argue that, in a diverse society, integrated schools have a value that goes far beyond ensuring equality.

"What do families want?" Wilcox asked.

Bostock said that will be "the big question" as the board struggles in the coming months to map a future for choice.

That seems to be the most important question. After all, those families are the consumers.

After all, some schools in majority black neighborhoods are drawing many white applicants. Why? Because they have strong programs that focus on the things the parents want. I'm not a Montessori fan, but I'm not surprised that a school with a Montessori has an application pool that is very white, even if it is located in a black neighborhood.

And don't forget that it has been black kids who have borne much of the burden of the desegregation program the county had for three decades. It was black kids who were most likely to be herded onto a bus bound for schools far from home. They were the chess pieces that got moved around in the game of integration. Parents who endured those rides now want neighborhood schools, something that they lacked. They see the irony that the result of Brown v. Board of Education (fought to let a black child go to the school closest to her home) eventually led to decisions that resulted in black kids being transported far away from the school nearest to their homes.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons License.