Help schools, even at cost of diversity

Published November 21, 2007

In the same angry letter in which NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Enrique Escarraz alleges the proposed Pinellas student assignment plan "promotes segregation," he concludes with a paradoxical demand. "The remedial action being sought," he writes, "is the continuation of a Choice Plan."

The existing choice plan, though, is leading in precisely the direction he is resisting. In just its first year without court-imposed ratios, choice has led to nine schools that are majority African-American and five elementary schools with kindergarten classes between 65 percent and 79 percent black. Seven other schools report a total of four black students in all their kindergartens.

As School Board member Janet Clark observed last week: "We keep hearing we don't want it to happen, but I don't hear any solutions for keeping it from happening."

Clark is right, which is why Escarraz's legal threats are almost beside the point. The new student assignment plan may in fact lead to less integration in Pinellas schools, but the worst case is only that it would do so more quickly than under the current choice plan.

Those are decidedly grim options, particularly in a school system that Escarraz helped become a model for integration. But given the direction of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the local housing patterns and the removal of court-imposed ratios, the district has limited options for maintaining racial diversity.

Toward that end, the School Board moved last week in the only direction that makes educational sense. It approved, on first reading, an assignment plan that attempts to reconnect schools and neighborhoods and to reduce the indefensible burden the failed choice plan has imposed on students and classrooms. Why take money from classrooms for busing that leads to less integration?

The transition to a district without a federal court order is anguishing, but the common ground that ought to exist between Escarraz and board members is the desire to make sure black students get the best possible education no matter which school they attend. That will take money, and superintendent Clayton Wilcox has provided a description of equitable funding in the assignment plan. But what he has written does not go far enough, and board members need to push for more prior to the scheduled final vote on Dec. 11.

Escarraz should take pride in the contributions he has made toward integrated schools in Pinellas, but his angry recriminations look backward at a time when the school system has to face forward. The choice plan scrambled families and schools in Pinellas for no educational reason. The lure of the new plan is that it might bring more predictability for all families and free up money to put into the classrooms that need it most.