tampabay.com

Parents: Race doesn't drive choice

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published February 3, 2007


In a county that has worked for three decades to keep its classrooms racially balanced, the vast majority of parents say race has no bearing on their choice of schools.

Even among most black families - on whose behalf the Pinellas school district has undertaken a massive integration effort - race is a distant concern in school selection, according to a long-awaited survey released Friday.

Far more important to black families, the survey indicates, are factors such as a school's academic reputation, its proximity to home and the presence of special programs in math, science, art, music and other areas.

Pinellas black families were about five times as likely as whites, and twice as likely as other minorities, to consider the racial makeup of a school's staff and student body. But when asked to list the top three reasons for choosing a school, those factors proved to be secondary at best.

Only 16 percent of black families put the racial makeup of schools as a top-three concern. Even smaller numbers said that having more black teachers and administrators was that important.

Taken together without racial breakdowns, 68 percent of Pinellas families said the racial makeup of a student body does not affect their choice of schools. More than 75 percent said the racial makeup of a school staff does not factor into their decision.

Another finding: Nearly 70 percent of the parents and guardians surveyed said they would be willing to drive their children "all of the way" to the school of their choice. It is a striking and perhaps welcome revelation in a district looking to tame its busing budget.

In the four years since the choice plan began as a way to voluntarily integrate schools, Pinellas' busing costs have surged from $26.6-million to $47-million, an increase of 77 percent.

A citizen task force will use the survey as it prepares a final report to the School Board later this month on the future of the choice plan. The plan's strict race ratios, which cap the number of black students in any school at 42 percent, will expire in May as part of a federal court settlement that brought a gradual end to 30 years of busing.

The task force is advising the board on whether the district should continue its attempts to integrate schools and, if so, what methods it should use. The volunteer group started working in August 2005 and will hold a special meeting today to begin developing a consensus.

The survey was conducted by the Center for Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Measurement at the University of South Florida. Of the 33,000 households that received surveys, 7,716 responded. About 90 percent were parents.

Pinellas families expressed mixed feelings about the process of selecting schools under the choice plan, which can be complicated.

A majority say they understand their options "very well" under the system. But a significant number - 45 percent - said they understood choice only a little or not at all.

More than one-third said they were "very satisfied" with the plan. But 38 percent were more lukewarm, saying they were only "somewhat satisfied." More than 20 percent said they were not satisfied.

Not surprisingly, families cited "strong academic reputation" as the top factor that attracted them to a school.

But they also gave high ratings to magnet and fundamental schools. The survey also showed that the district's high school career academies are resonating with families. Nearly 70 percent said a career academy would make them more likely to choose a school.

Strong majorities expressed a preference for elementary schools being close to home, even if it meant they would have fewer choices and less racial diversity.

Proximity to home was less important for middle and high school students, the respondents said.

The USF researchers who analyzed the survey detected a sense that many Pinellas families had grown weary of categorizing students by race.

In written comments, some expressed irritation at even being asked about the subject.

"Why are you stuck on races?" one respondent asked. "My child is a minority - it doesn't matter."

Another called the practice of busing crazy and said: "You make us feel like our only differences are the color of our skin."

Others said they relished diversity in schools. One respondent expressed fear that the district won't consider diversity a priority in the future.

"I cannot even begin to comprehend this," the respondent said. "Are we on the verge of losing something that has taken years go build? What a tremendous step backwards if this is the case."

Fast Facts:

Parental preferences

What do you look for in a school? Listed below are the percentages of Pinellas parents who put these factors in their top three.

The survey is available online. For a quick link to it, go to links.tampabay.com.

All

Black
Academic reputation 75% 64%
Distance from home 61% 50%
Special programs 50% 41%
Tutoring programs 22% 38%
Programs for students with academic challenges 16% 22%
Students of different races 7% 16%
Administrators of different races 4% 13%
Teachers of different races 4% 12%