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Back to basics on schools
Busing kids hither and yon is no substitute for a quality education.
By LIAM JULIAN, Other Views
Published November 3, 2007
In all the talk about Pinellas County's proposed student-assignment plan, two major questions have been overlooked. First: What is the purpose of a student-assignment plan? And second: What is the purpose of public schools?
If these points are not addressed forthrightly (and they have not yet been), the bickering will continue.
The questions cannot be answered from a historical perspective, either, but from the perspective of a big, urban school-district in 2007. De jure segregation is a thing of the past. We shouldn't be rehashing old concerns; we need to confront the new ones.
The problems with Pinellas County's current student-assignment system - the "choice" plan - are numerous. Most egregious is its penchant for busing students hither and yon throughout the district while doing little to foster the racial integration it initially promised. Parents have said repeatedly they don't like it.
What is the purpose of a student-assignment plan?
Judging by survey responses, the majority of Pinellas County parents believe that a student-assignment plan should seek the easiest way to get youngsters into good schools close to their homes. And yet, we now hear that the district's proposed plan is a nonstarter because it will "resegregate" Pinellas' classrooms. Such a criticism is off-base, because it's unrelated to the student-assignment system's purpose. It's unrelated to what parents think a student-assignment system should seek to do.
If the new plan is approved, schools will surely become more racially imbalanced. But they will also become more accessible to parents, and they will benefit from millions of extra dollars that come from eliminating long-distance busing.
What is the purpose of public schools?
In 2007, public schools must strive to do one thing above all else - increase the academic achievement of their youthful charges. Diversity is no bad thing but in itself does little to further this goal. Many diversity defenders claim (most of them implicitly) that poor and minority students can learn only when they're sitting next to white students. This is simply untrue.
A huge body of research has studied whether black students learn more in majority-white schools. No study makes a compelling argument that they do. One essay concluded, "There is not a single example in the published literature of a comprehensive racial balance plan that has improved black achievement or that has reduced the black-white achievement gap significantly."
Will majority-black schools in Pinellas County receive less money than majority-white schools, as some have claimed? No. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox showed, at a recent School Board meeting, that the district is already spending more on schools with large populations of minority and poor children - in some cases, close to $5,000 more per pupil per year. And this figure doesn't even account for the extra federal money many majority-black schools receive.
The choice is between an arrangement that reduces logistical hassles, saves money, has significant parental support, may help raise academic achievement, and furthers the fundamental purpose of public schools; or another year of a failed plan that has little parental support, doesn't increase diversity, buses students for miles, and may detract from the educational mission.
Consider, too, the time, money, and work that has been spent crafting these assignment systems. Imagine if that effort was geared toward closing the achievement gap that currently exists between Pinellas' black and white students.
School-assignment policies and public schools are not set up to be islands of social engineering. For one, they're no good at it; busing has been a failure throughout the country.
But when we do not clearly define the purpose of assignment plans and public schools, we inevitably distract and detract from the overall goal: educating students.
Most people would like it if their neighborhoods, their churches, their grocery stores were more racially integrated. We won't get there by shifting students from one school to the next. A far better strategy is to get kids to school as quickly, easily and safely as possible, and then teach them like mad once they're there.
Liam Julian is a St. Petersburg native and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.