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Don't stop now on school plan
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published October 23, 2007
The greatest failure of school choice in Pinellas may be that it bused more students and disrupted more communities while fostering less racial integration. As School Board members look today at charting a new course, they need to keep that lesson in mind.
The choice plan was sold as a way to maintain integration in the absence of a successful desegregation court order that endured for three decades, but it turned out to be a costly illusion. This year, the first without imposed ratios, nine schools are majority African-American and five St. Petersburg elementary schools report kindergarten classes that are between 65 percent and 79 percent black.
The more curious result, though, is better represented by a school such as Ozona Elementary in Palm Harbor. It is 1 percent black, yet it enrolls students from 20 different neighborhoods. In other words, it fragments communities and buses large numbers of students while achieving almost no racial diversity. Why?
Mary Brown, who is the School Board's only African-American member, says she fears the new assignment plan could lead to less integration. But the problem with her call for delay is that it provides no solutions for the current mess and the demographic shifts already under way.
The best options for integration, at this point, are strong magnet programs and zoning patterns to protect schools that already are enjoying success. Both are better pursued under the new plan, which could free up money spent on needless busing.
The new plan reconnects schools with neighborhoods and is designed to bring more predictability for families. A new Times survey also suggests it is precisely what families, black and white, are seeking. Brown may wish that parents had expressed different priorities, but both black and white parents ranked racial integration last behind school quality, closeness to home and keeping siblings together.
The new survey also shines a light on the question of busing for students who want to keep their old school assignments. Of the parents whose children already are bused, 51 percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks said they would provide their own transportation for "a school you like better." That result may reassure board members who are trying to balance grandfathering with added busing costs.
The board had hoped to approve its final draft on a 7-0 vote. But that seems unlikely now. Both Brown and board veteran Linda Lerner are calling for more time, and Brown says the district should learn from the way "we implemented choice too fast."
The district did make a mess of the transition to choice, but there are few parallels to the new plan. With choice, the district created an entirely new system of assignment and required all 112,000 students to apply. It built a new application process and new computer sorting procedure, opened family information centers, and chose to input thousands of applications by hand. There will be plenty to accomplish this time, but most of the tedious work from choice is unnecessary.
Board members took their first step toward repairing the unworkable choice plan roughly 2 1/2 years ago. They may be getting a little buyer's anxiety as they move closer to the end, but they have done their homework and are more than ready today to take the next step.