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Leave school choice mistakes behind
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published October 7, 2007
As Pinellas School Board members begin public hearings this week on a new student assignment plan, some of them are suffering a bout of amnesia. The reason they spent the past two years crafting a different way of assigning students is that the current choice plan, adopted seven years ago over the strenuous objections of parents, was broken from the start. By every broad measure, the proposed new plan is better.
This is not to suggest that the plan, which attempts to reconnect schools with their communities, is flawless. The public hearings are yet another way to challenge whether it measures up in all areas, including its commitment to racial diversity and the necessary financial resources for schools with the most struggling students.
What is unfair in some of the early criticism, though, is the attempt to label the assignment plan as hasty or ill-conceived. It is neither.
First: It reacts to a choice plan that was horribly designed. In trying to be all things to all students, choice ended up sending them in all different directions. Students who missed the application deadline often ended up halfway across the county. The location of a home played little role in where a student was assigned. Busing costs skyrocketed and high school students were forced to start at 7:05 each morning.
Second: Regrettably, the choice plan also has led to less racial integration. Even in the first four years, as court-mandated ratios were kept in place, the concentration of African-American students grew in many schools. This year, the first without ratios, nine schools already are majority black, and the trend is worrisome. At Fairmount Park Elementary, for example, 75 percent of this year's kindergarten class is black.
Those who think the current choice system will promote diversity are wearing blinders. Racial diversity, given the severe constraints now imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court, will have to be achieved through magnet programs and smart selective zoning.
Third: This new plan did not pop up overnight. A large and broadly diverse task force spent 18 months studying the issue. Parents were surveyed. The board has held workshops for more than three months, poring through details. The process has been so transparent that a newspaper reporter was allowed to sit in on administrative brainstorming sessions. Board members and the public have been treated to volumes of statistical data and to roughly a dozen different drafts.
In the upcoming hearings and public meetings, School Board members will no doubt hear from parents who like the schools their children now attend. That's a good thing, because it reflects well on the overall quality of Pinellas schools. It is not necessarily an endorsement of the way students are assigned to schools, though, and board members should be careful to discern the difference.
Choice is a failed model for pupil assignment in Pinellas, and those who would argue that the district is too quick to make another major change are losing sight of the past. These four-plus years of choice are the notable exception in a long history of assignment tied to geography. The connection between home and school has itself brought stability to education, and is nothing to be feared.