By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
The Pinellas school system may argue in a trial that "societal factors" are at the root of the disparity between black and white students.
TAMPA - The Pinellas school system is trying to close the achievement gap between black and white students but can go only so far, the district argued Tuesday before three appellate judges.
If forced into a trial over a lawsuit that blames the school system for fostering the gap, the district would defend itself by citing a variety of "societal factors over which we have no control," said Hala A. Sandridge, a lawyer with the firm of Fowler White Boggs Banker, which is handling the case for the district.
"That is going to devolve into a series of minitrials for thousands of students," she told the Second District Court of Appeal in Tampa. For example, Sandridge said, the district might want to show that individual students do poorly in school because of poverty, poor parental involvement or too much television watching.
Other students do well, she said, arguing that race is not a factor.
The lawsuit contends that race is the primary reason for the gap and that Pinellas suffers from a systemwide failure to educate students of African descent, in violation of Florida's laws and constitution.
The plaintiffs are a black father, William Crowley, and his son, Akwete Osoka. But Pinellas Circuit Judge James R. Case broadened the case last year to class-action status, meaning it now represents all 21,000 black students in Pinellas public schools and those who may enter the system in the future.
The district is appealing the class-action ruling, resulting in Tuesday's hearing. It is unclear when the appellate court will rule.
To overturn Judge Case, the court must find that he abused his discretion, said Guy Burns, the Tampa attorney representing the plaintiffs. Sandridge, citing other cases, urged the court to consider how unwieldy the case would be if allowed to go to trial.
The achievement gap has been debated and examined by everyone from teachers to governors to Harvard scholars. The theories about its causes are numerous and controversial - from alleged racism on the part of white teachers to a purported lack of emphasis on education by many black families.
The Crowley case, if successful, would bring that multifaceted national discussion into a Pinellas courtroom. Its goal: to compel the district to find the silver bullet that so far has eluded other school systems.
Pinellas' gap is considerable and can be measured in many ways. For example, 63 percent of white students in the district scored at their grade level or better on the reading portion of last year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Only 30 percent of black students scored as well, lower than any other minority group.
In 2004, 72 percent of white students graduated from Pinellas high schools in four years with standard diplomas. The figure for black students was 43 percent.
Numbers like that result in poor job prospects or lives of crime for many young black people, and they are "foreclosed from society," Burns said in arguing for the plaintiffs.
"It's time for us to stop this cycle," he said. "They need the access to this court and this (legal) system to help the process along."
If Tuesday's arguments were any indication, a trial would zero in on some of the core issues in the gap debate, namely: Why it exists and who is responsible for closing it.
"We are saying that the school board needs to address this on a systemwide basis," Burns said. "If something is happening that causes this hugely wide disparity, I think it's fair to say the opportunity is not equal" for black students. He was referring to Florida's constitutional promise of a "quality education" for all students.
Sandridge countered that the state promises students "the opportunity" to get a quality education but can't guarantee success for each student. She said it remains "a bit of a mystery" what remedies a court might prescribe.
"There is a program" to alleviate the disparity, she said. "We are concerned about this achievement gap. We are not ignoring it."
Both sides also used food analogies.
Burns likened the education system to a cafeteria where each student gets a scoop of "educational hash." Black students, he argued, don't digest it "in the same way as white students," and it's up to the school system to find out why.
In an interview after the hearing, school superintendent Clayton Wilcox compared the system to a banquet table.
"We set it," he said, "but at some level you've got to lift your arm and lift your fork and go for the nourishment."