Choice plan remake

Published March 12, 2007

With a citizens task force and a parent survey both pushing for schools closer to home, a political reality awaits Pinellas public education. The choice assignment plan that followed three decades of court-ordered busing has failed miserably, and schools are destined to alter the balance between neighborhoods and racial diversity.

The new survey itself points the way: Parents of all races rank school proximity as second only to academic reputation. Even African-American parents rank racial diversity as a distant sixth on a list of priorities.

The School Board, then, faces the kind of moment that may well be judged by history. The district already has removed, as contemplated in its court settlement, any consideration of race in assigning students to school this fall. Board members must now repair a choice system that was created with little regard for the burdens it imposes on families and classrooms. Those repairs might further undermine the goal of racial diversity.

That tension left a diverse Choice Task Force itself grasping for answers. "There remains strong personal and social moral preferences and wishes on the part of task force members in support of integration," states the final report. "And even though we may yield to the letter of a new reality of expectation in the law and in the community, we never wish for the school district to lose the spirit of social justice and equality."

Nothing about the challenge ahead will be simple, but the choice plan must be remade and School Board members can at least be guided at the outset by a few general principles:


1) Remove frivolous choice. Students in the southern part of the county can choose any one of 27 elementary schools, which implies each school offers something different. That's a costly illusion, and it is at the core of what's wrong with the choice plan. The greater the number of schools in each choice zone, the more the district spends on buses, the more likely it is that any individual school could become a dumping ground, and the more likely it is that individual students could end up, against their wishes, far from home.

The task force recommends as many as seven different zones for elementary schools. That's just a starting point. The middle and high school zones should also be reduced in size. The only reason to bus a high school student from one end of the county to the other is for a special academic pursuit, and that's already covered for magnet and career programs. The bounty of choices may look good on paper, but it is strangling the school system.


2) Cut busing by 40 percent. The same district that sought to lift its desegregation order so it could reduce busing then turned around and produced a choice plan that increased routes and ridership by 40 percent. Some students spend three hours a day on buses now, and every student suffers the consequences: a three-tiered busing schedule that forces high schools to start at 7:05 a.m. and other schools to end at 4:05 p.m.; and $27-million in busing costs that are not reimbursed by the state, money that could be used to provide genuine academic enhancements.


3) Neighborhoods do matter. The attorneys who devised the current choice plan tried to remove geography altogether from school assignment, but compromised on a provision that gives some students preference to attend schools close to home. The "proximity" formula the district adopted, however, is so skimpy as to be almost irrelevant. In some popular schools, as few as one in five students are guaranteed spots because they live nearby. That's too disorienting for schools and their communities, and board members will need to find remedies. One approach would be to significantly increase the percentage of students who are given the proximity preference. Another would be to assign each student one guaranteed school, and allow for choosing others.


4) Don't assume on race. The court settlement did specify that Pinellas would drop racial ratios at each school this coming year, but that doesn't mean the district has to remove any consideration of race as a means of helping keep schools diverse. Why shouldn't it help maintain voluntary integration at schools, such as Perkins Elementary, that have been successful in the past? The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on whether school districts can pursue racial diversity as a goal, and no future assignment plan should be completed without first knowing that result.

Also, the task force has asked to broaden the definition of diversity to include such factors as educational achievement and socioeconomic status, and the recommendation deserves a fair hearing. Some research suggests that high- and low-achieving students benefit from the interaction, and superintendent Clayton Wilcox has previously objected when choice leaves any one school overloaded with low achievers.

The goals of diversity and neighborhood schools are often at odds, which may explain why the task force struggled. But the survey it commissioned does amplify the main educational shortcoming of the current choice plan: The plan provides families with little certainty and separates schools from their communities. That's not good for education. The choice plan is confusing, disruptive and costly, and is creating less integration. Pinellas families want and deserve a new direction.