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Race-based busing now iffy
The school system might drop its voluntary busing program, though it still seeks diversity and balance.
By TOM MARSHALL
Published July 9, 2007
BROOKSVILLE - Though the tea leaves are far from clear, it appears likely that Hernando County's 40-year-old racial busing program is nearing an end.
The number of African-American families choosing to have their children bused across the county from South Brooksville to other schools has dropped steadily since 1968, when the district undertook a voluntary plan to desegregate its school system to comply with federal civil rights laws. Last spring, 75 children were bused, down from a high of about 650 in the early 1970s.
And last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which overturned two larger desegregation programs in Seattle and Louisville, suggests that courts will no longer support even voluntary efforts in which race is an explicit factor in school assignments.
J. Paul Carland, attorney for the Hernando School Board, said last week that that decision could affect the district's voluntary program, which is under review by the federal government.
"The only factors considered when Hernando's busing program was put together were race factors," he said. "I certainly think that puts the program under scrutiny."
Justices in the 5-4 ruling were sharply divided over the question of how much school boards can do to promote racial balance or diversity in schools. A majority, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled that schools cannot assign students to schools in a "nonindividualized, mechanical way" on the basis of race.
But Justice Kennedy agreed with the dissenting minority in saying school districts do have a "compelling interest" in preventing racial isolation, in which racial minorities are clustered disproportionately in a few schools.
"The decision today should not prevent school districts from continuing the important work of bringing together students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds," Kennedy wrote in his concurring opinion.
It's a complex mandate for the Hernando County School Board: Continue to pursue diversity and balance in its 20 schools, but don't use race as the sole factor.
In racial and socioeconomic terms, the diversity gap has grown in Hernando County over the last decade with the construction of new schools.
A few older elementary schools like Brooksville, Moton, Eastside and Westside enroll minority and low-income children in numbers far above the district average.
Brooksville Elementary, for example, counts a population that is 16 percent African-American and 63 percent low-income, compared with a district average of 7 percent and 42 percent, respectively.
At the other end of the spectrum, two magnet schools, Chocachatti and Challenger K-8 School of Mathematics and Science, enroll populations that are 2 percent African-American, and 27 percent and 26 percent low-income, respectively. The student body at Suncoast Elementary, a neighborhood school, is 3 percent black and 38 percent low-income.
All three schools opened over the last decade in response to population growth on the county's west side.
The picture was far different in the summer of 1968, as the district prepared to begin its busing program. Under a racial housing ordinance passed in 1948, African-American children were effectively restricted to the all-black Moton School.
Across Florida and the nation, school districts were struggling to comply with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Some districts, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Volusia and St. Johns counties, as well as Louisville, Ky., developed busing plans under a court order to desegregate. Dozens of others like Hernando developed "voluntary" plans, under the threat of a court order or lost federal funding.
Busing children across the county wasn't universally popular. Some African-American parents complained of the long daily bus rides between South Brooksville and a handful of schools in Spring Hill, and in the 1990s parents were given the option to "opt out."
Other families valued the option: in 2005 the number of students being bused rose from 194 to 226, before dropping to 89 out of 1,481 African-American children last fall.
But last year, Hernando told the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that it planned to drop the busing program in conjunction with a school boundary rezoning effort.
The department initially approved that request. But after the Hernando County branch of the NAACP objected, the federal government reversed itself and began a study of the situation. The district has been waiting for guidance ever since.
Now, a districtwide rezoning effort to accommodate the planned 2, 200-student elementary school "J" off Northcliffe Boulevard in Spring Hill is under way. Both rezoning and the controversial topic of magnet school admissions are on tap for a July 26 School Board workshop.
So far, the rezoning has focused on geographic areas and enrollment numbers rather than questions of race or income, said Student Services director James Knight.
But some board members say they're not comfortable with just allowing school enrollment to follow housing patterns, if the result means a widening gap in terms of race and family income.
Even with the recent Supreme Court ruling, Justice Kennedy said, the law permits districts to take steps to promote racial or other forms of diversity.
Those measures include "strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race," he wrote.
School Board member John Sweeney said he was interested in looking at other school districts that use family income as a factor in school assignments. Using income as a tiebreaker could help boost the number of low-income students in magnet schools and ease the burden on other schools, he said.
Board member Jim Malcolm said he was opposed to such methods, but supported the idea of recruiting minority and low-income students more aggressively in the magnet school admissions process.
"I think you can do this through effective recruiting," he said. "Go to areas where you know people are economically disadvantaged, and actively participate in those schools to interest those youngsters."
Malcolm said the board might also modify the district's school choice plan to encourage economic or racial diversity efforts.
"Diversity should be near the top of the agenda, as far as I'm concerned," said Wayman Boggs, president of the Hernando NAACP.
He said minority families needed to do their part by being part of the community discussion on school zoning and choice.
"All of us should be trying to make sure some sort of diversity is maintained," Boggs added.