Act now on school plan

A Times Editorial
Published December 17, 2007

No federal judge or state law is forcing Pinellas to change the way it assigns students to public schools, so a divided School Board could always wait another year before making a decision. But that is a copout, not a strategy, and it assumes that another year under the failed choice plan is somehow cost-free. In fact, delay would come at considerable cost to families and the school district.

Ask the student who moves into a new home after the application deadline and is forced to attend a school far from his neighborhood. Ask the struggling high school sophomore who is nodding off in a first-period class that starts at 7:05 a.m. Ask the transportation director who runs half-empty buses at the cost of 400 lost classroom teachers. Ask the principal hoping to maintain racial diversity at a school that, under a second year with no ratios, may welcome another kindergarten class that is 79 percent African-American.

The reason the district wrote a new student assignment plan is that its current one isn't working. In the two-plus years the district has studied the choice plan, it has learned that a large majority of parents are ready for something new and something that brings their students closer to home. Delay is not going to change that reality.

The sticking point at a board workshop on Tuesday was the difficult tradeoffs in the magnet and fundamental schools in southern St. Petersburg that have provided voluntary integration. To keep those schools open to all students countywide is to give them the best possible chance to maintain diversity. But doing so also closes the door to many neighborhood students.

A tightly drawn neighborhood zone around each of those schools may serve as a viable compromise. But the conflict may not be as great as some board members think. Though 11 of the 13 elementary schools south of Central Avenue are classified as fundamental or magnet, only four of them actually draw large numbers of students from outside the area. As School Board members sacrifice diversity in southern St. Petersburg for neighborhood students, they should work just as hard to make it just as easy for black families who prefer that their children attend more racially mixed schools to have that opportunity.

The board members who are insisting that every school and every community be guided by the same set of rules are seeking a type of foolish consistency that plagued the choice plan itself. Not every student learns the same way and not every school assignment issue can be addressed with the same tool. The test should be whether each approach is educationally sound.

School Board members need to take a deep breath. No plan that is called upon to assign 107,000 students to 138 schools spread over 280 square miles will eliminate individual burden. But board members can't let perfect be the enemy of good. The plan they have before them, despite its shortcomings, is a vast improvement over choice and offers the promise of reconnecting neighborhoods and communities. It also will evolve over time -- no school enrollment boundaries or assignment plans are ever set in concrete. Experience under the new plan naturally would lead to further refinements.

These issues are tough ones, and this transition is significant. But board members are beginning to run in circles. If their superintendent is able to complete their most recent changes by Tuesday, then board members should be ready act. The district can't afford any more delays. It needs to chart a new course for next fall.