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Perspective

Get ready for school resegregation

Listening to the Supreme Court argue an important schools case, I realized no matter the outcome, some schools here will certainly resegregate.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published December 10, 2006


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First, a confession.

Six days ago this newspaper sent me to Washington to cover oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue were two cases that will determine whether the nation continues its long experiment with engineering the racial makeup of schools.

I heard the ardent questioning of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the raspy wit of Justice Antonin Scalia, the cool efficiency of John G. Roberts Jr., the new chief justice.

I heard them, but did not see them.

So large was the press contingent for the landmark case that non-"regulars" - about 40 of us - were herded to a narrow walkway in the far left side of the great chamber.

Before us stood a row of handsome marble columns. Between them hung a bank of golden gates. Around them hung tufts of scarlet curtains that flowed to the floor like kings' robes.

Through a tiny opening, I caught a glimpse of Justice Samuel Alito's hairline. Or was it the pulled-back coiffure of the justice to his right, Ruth Bader Ginsburg? I couldn't be sure.

A court employee held up her fingers to identify justices by number as they spoke.

(Not once did she hold up six fingers for Clarence Thomas. He was dead to us.)

If I know my fellow reporters the way I think I do, each one had the same moment I did, asking: "Why am I here?"

That said, the situation had its pluses. It allowed you to focus on words rather than atmospherics. And when you listened that closely and sorted through all that was said, you came around to another thought: All signs point to a day when Tampa Bay area school systems will be more segregated, not less.

Why?

One reason is that it's hard not to keep score when the justices' questions and past positions so clearly reveal their thinking. Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Thomas seem squarely in the camp of not allowing race to determine school assignments in the future.

On the other side, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer seem inclined to allow districts some leeway in using race to assign students to schools. All were part of the 2003 majority that allowed a Michigan law school to use race in limited ways when selecting students.

That leaves Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, seen by many as the swing vote on this issue.

At times on Monday, he seemed hostile to lawyers for the white parents who say their children were denied seats at preferred schools because of racial controls that gave those seats to black kids.

But on balance, Kennedy seemed to have more of a bone to pick with the other side - the lawyers who said benefits of integration outweighed the potential harm to individual rights when you classify kids by race.

Allowing school districts to assign by race "takes us on a very perilous course," Kennedy said. He later called it "a troubling case."

Add the fact that Kennedy was part of the conservative minority in the Michigan law school case and one could easily count a new court majority that is blind to race when it comes to placing kids in schools.

But let's say Kennedy goes the other way. How would that really change the facts on the ground in Tampa Bay?

Consider what the court is being asked to do.

With court-ordered busing plans now fading into history, it is setting the rules for districts like Hillsborough and Pinellas who voluntarily want to integrate in the future.

Once opposed to integration, districts in Seattle and Louisville are asking the court to allow choice systems like theirs, which have preserved a measure of racial balance in their schools.

In Seattle, race was third on the list of tiebreakers used only in cases when there were more students applying to a school than seats available.

In Louisville, race was part of an elaborate mix of factors used in assigning kids to schools. It came into play for about 3 percent of students.

If the justices were to side with these school districts, they would be sanctioning a relatively mild set of integration tools. Seattle's were so mild they did nothing to keep at least two high schools from becoming 90 percent minority.

Are these the kinds of tools that would keep schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough from resegregating?

Probably not.

Pinellas is only now emerging from 35 years of using strict race ratios to set school enrollments. A look at choice applications indicates that most Pinellas families will want to attend a neighborhood school when the ratios expire at the end of this academic year.

Unless that impulse is dampened or somehow controlled, some schools will likely return to being predominantly black or all-black for the first time since 1970.

In Hillsborough, which has no race ratios, the choice plan hasn't inspired the voluntary racial mixing some had hoped for. As a result, dozens of schools have predominantly minority enrollments. Several have ballooned to between 80 and 90 percent minority.

To reverse these trends, both counties would likely need a stronger set of tools than those the high court is considering.

According to briefs filed in the Seattle and Louisville cases, the use of magnet schools to create diversity only goes so far. The same holds true for the practice of using family income to assign kids to schools.

The worries of racial isolation

Pinellas and Hillsborough would like to avoid "racial isolation," a condition explored by researchers and decried by several organizations who filed briefs in the cases at hand.

According to a large body of research, racial diversity in schools promotes cross-cultural understanding, less stereotyping and stronger civic engagement. It also better prepares students for the work and college worlds, researchers say.

In addition, the research says, minority students in racially isolated schools perform worse on some standardized tests, typically have less access to advanced courses and inevitably suffer from higher teacher turnover.

Though districts might treat racially isolated schools equally in the budget, Hillsborough School Board member Doretha Edgecomb says you have to look at a school's "hidden curriculum," which includes intangibles such as exposing kids to different worlds.

"There are many factors that have nothing to do with funding or the newness of the building or the number of computers in a school," says Edgecomb, who is black. Having spent her childhood and early teaching career in racially isolated schools, she says she's an avowed "integrationist" and she's alarmed by the advancing decline in school diversity.

Though hard-pressed to think of specific fixes, Edgecomb says the district can ill-afford to passively allow segregated schools to become a fact of life. "I think we shortchange kids on both sides," she says.

In Pinellas, school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, says he is saddened by the prospect of losing diversity in schools and by an adult world that, in many settings, continues to separate by race.

"For me it's a scary thing, but I live in the real world," he says. "It is what America has become."

He says one way to fight the trend might be to rethink magnet schools, which traditionally have been used as tools to entice white families into black neighborhood schools.

Why not create magnets that bring black students into white neighborhoods? Wilcox asks. "I think we have to go both ways."

Beyond that, he says, the solution is to "create good schools everywhere."

But what if you try everything in the book and schools remain segregated?

"We'll give it our best shot, but we're not social engineers," Wilcox says. "If people don't buy it ... I guess we're no worse off than the churches. Look at how people tend to go to churches. Does that mean we're any less faithful as a nation?"

Some who spoke beneath the Supreme Court steps after Monday's oral arguments predicted a ruling against the school districts would just about unravel the progress of the last 50 years.

In Tampa Bay at least, it's an assessment that ignores the facts. Today's choice plans give black children freedom to attend a variety of schools, a bus ride to make it happen and thus the ability to avoid racially isolated schools if they wish.

It is a far cry from the forced segregation of old.

"The people who say that it will return to the bad old days are fearmongers at best," Wilcox says.

"In order to believe that, you have to believe the worst about us as a people. ... It's a tough time. It really is. But it's not the end of the world."

[Last modified December 10, 2006, 05:57:13]


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