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For equality, we need diversity in our schools

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published October 8, 2006


The Hernando County school district has been busing a dwindling number of black students across the county as part of its voluntary school desegregation program.

But some parents didn't want their kids to take long bus rides anymore. Others said housing patterns had changed dramatically since voluntary busing first started decades ago; it was time for the program to end.

But local NAACP officials said, not so fast.

That local controversy is being played out against the backdrop of a divisive national debate which has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question, which arose out of cases in the Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., public schools, sounds complicated: Is there a compelling state interest to promote racial diversity in public schools?

I believe so, although when we talk about diversity, we need to expand the discussion beyond race and talk about economics - rich and poor.

But there are those who believe that government shouldn't tinker with demographics, that efforts to end racial inequality are inherently discriminatory. In their mind, it's a zero sum game. If blacks win because of that tinkering, whites lose.

Sadly, it seems that Gov. Jeb Bush is among those who believe that.

In a recent brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush and the state's lawyers argue that if the court upholds lower court rulings on the diversity question, it will undermine all the great progress we have made in Florida over the past eight years and "perpetuate harmful stereotypes."

"Florida has chosen a better way," Bush argues.

"Florida has boldly reformed policies that previously used race and ethnic classifications to give unequal preferences to some individuals and has turned from such policies advocating the soft bigotry of low expectations to those set on ensuring equal opportunity for all individuals."

That sounds reasonable enough. But the governor's argument would be more credible if it came from another source, from someone who hadn't made a career out of trashing affirmative action and diversity.

Bush is the proud author of the One Florida Initiatives, which sought to end racial preferences and quotas in minorities for contracting and admission to state universities.

It's not coincidental that minority enrollment in state universities has declined in recent years. The story of Bush's impact preK-12 is still being written.

But this attack on diversity in public schools is part of a larger struggle, says Ted Shaw, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It's a direct attack on what's left of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark case that outlawed segregated public schools.

The days of mandatory public school desegregation are all but over, Shaw said. All that's left are voluntary programs in places such as in Seattle and Louisville and places like Hernando and Pinellas.

"We say we honor Brown vs. Board of Education, but we only honor it in principle not in practice," Shaw said.

To be fair, opposition to programs that promote diversity and integration isn't limited to one political persuasion or race.

Some blacks have long argued that black educational achievement has suffered under integrated public schools, because black students no longer benefitted from the tutelage of the committed cadre of black teachers who taught in all black schools.

They have looked increasingly to charter schools and private schools to provide the kind of education that has eluded them in public schools.

Like the parents in Brooksville, many black families are demanding quality neighborhood schools for their children, not long bus rides across town - an unfortunate legacy of desegregation and Brown vs. Board.

Because of how and where we live, neighborhood schools usually don't reflect the diversity that students need. And too often, schools in poor, black neighborhoods struggle to get resources and good grades.

Wasn't that the fundamental problem Brown vs. Board was trying to solve?

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 7, 2006, 18:01:32]


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