Does choice work?
School choice in Pinellas County was supposed to maintain racial diversity in the absence of a federal court order, but the early signs are not encouraging. Most schools in predominantly black neighborhoods in St. Petersburg are having trouble attracting white students, and one new fundamental middle school will open with more than two-thirds of its classrooms empty.
These are worrisome signs. More worrisome, at the moment, is the rigid and defensive reaction from superintendent Howard Hinesley and his staff.
Fall assignments for the first year of choice are nearly complete, and Hinesley has yet to give a meaningful overview of how the plan is working. His staff is so overwhelmed by application paperwork and notification letters and angry parents that it still measures success solely on the basis of a computer tabulation of 18,954 students in February.
Those numbers are of limited usefulness to School Board members, who will need to be flexible with choice policy to ensure its long-term success. The board will need a more clear-eyed view of how choice is working. Which schools are having problems with racial caps? Which schools were seldom chosen? How did neighborhood preference work out? The sibling preference? How did the kindergarten class, the only students who were not granted an exemption from choice, fare?
So far, Hinesley is providing few answers, and the ones he has offered are incomplete.
Are students getting the schools they want? Hinesley says yes, but he's right only if you consider that three-fourths of the fall class decided to forgo choice and keep their currently assigned school. Of the remainder, for every five students who got their first choice, four got no choice at all.
Is choice providing racial diversity? Three new schools in the St. Petersburg African-American community will open roughly half full. Thurgood Marshall Middle has drawn only 166 students who aren't black, which is at odds with Hinesley's pledge when he disregarded the community's request and opened it as a fundamental school. Even existing schools with commendable track records, such as Campbell Park Elementary, are experiencing problems.
Is neighborhood preference treating newcomers fairly? Under the plan, 35 percent of a school's available seats are to go to students who live nearby, but only 7 percent of students received the preference for the fall. That number is low in part because many neighborhood students will attend through the grandfathering exemption, but in kindergarten the ratio was still only 20 percent. At Palm Harbor University High, not a single incoming freshman received the preference.
The challenge for the board during the remaining four years of court-imposed racial ratios is to build a choice system that is workable and embraced by the families who must use it. Board members will need to move beyond their own administration's fear of second-guessing and be willing to analyze what is working and what isn't. To make this all work, board members will need better answers than they have received so far.
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