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Law risk to choice, court told

Pinellas school officials fear the federal No Child Left Behind Act jeopardizes their choice system and may lead to resegregation of schools.

Published May 1, 2004

New federal education rules are threatening to destroy the Pinellas school choice plan, the School Board said Friday in a federal court filing.

The rules stand to "eviscerate" choice and quickly undo decades of work aimed at keeping Pinellas schools racially integrated, School Board attorney John Bowen said in an interview.

Bowen said the rules would hasten the return of schools with African-American majorities, which haven't existed in Pinellas since before busing began in 1971.

In the filing Friday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Bowen asked a federal judge to decide which mandate Pinellas should follow:

The federal government's No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in 2002.

Or the August 2000 federal court order that created the "controlled choice" plan.

At issue are rules under No Child Left Behind that allow all students at failing public schools to move to another public school of their choosing.

Designed to prod educators to improve their methods, the right to transfer kicks in after a school has failed to make "adequate yearly progress" two years in a row. It applies only to so-called Title I schools, which get federal grants because large numbers of their students are in poverty.

Pinellas predicts that as many as 1,647 students at 44 Title I schools will elect to transfer if the federal rules are allowed to stand.

Under the choice plan, only 949 seats would be available, the district says.

Several additional problems would arise:

Transferring students would be allowed to jump ahead of students already on the choice plan's waiting lists.

They could transfer into magnet and fundamental schools without having to endure the lottery system normally used to get into those schools.

The "attendance area" boundaries that now confine students to schools in their own region of the county would be meaningless. Students transferring from a school the federal government says is failing could choose a new school anywhere in Pinellas.

Most notably, students could move to new schools without regard to their race. Under choice, no school's enrollment can be more than 42 percent black. Schools also must have minimum percentages of black students that vary with location.

If the race ratios took a back seat to No Child Left Behind, Bowen predicted that hundreds of black students would transfer to schools in St. Petersburg's predominantly black neighborhoods, bringing about resegregation.

In short, Bowen said, the federal rules undermine the controls that make controlled choice what it is. The controls are designed to condition white and black parents to choose schools outside their neighborhoods. When the choice phase-in period expires at the end of the 2007-08 school year, the district hopes Pinellas families will have developed a habit of integrating in schools voluntarily.

Bowen suggests in his motion that U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday allow students to transfer under the federal law, but only to the extent allowed by choice. He argued that the choice plan already gives families the ability to shop around for schools.

The choice plan is the result of negotiations between the district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as both sides looked for a way to achieve integrated schools without busing.

The choice plan was part of a larger court order governing how the district would work to improve the status of black students.

Bowen's court filing argues choice should be preserved because it gives Pinellas "the best chance of ensuring a stable, integrated school system" after 2007-08. It says the district spent nearly $160-million to comply with the order, including construction and renovation of several schools in predominantly black neighborhoods of St. Petersburg.

He criticized the "one-size-fits-all approach" of No Child Left Behind, saying it failed to recognize special cases like Pinellas.

One St. Petersburg group would rather see Merryday rule in favor of the federal law.

"What has happened is they are overemphasizing choice," said Vyrle Davis, a retired Pinellas schools administrator, co-chairman of Concerned Citizens for Quality Education for Black Students.

The group contends Pinellas' intense focus on the choice plan has caused it to ignore more pressing problems such as the high suspension rate of black students in schools and the gap in test scores between black and white students.

"Those are going almost unnoticed," said Davis, who said No Child Left Behind forces the district to address the gap.

Lawyers for the Legal Defense Fund are considering whether to join the district in its federal court motion, Bowen said.

[Last modified May 1, 2004, 01:10:35]

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