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Critics scorn new desegregation plan

The voluntary desegregation plan sketched by Hillsborough County not only will not work, opponents say, it's a step back.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000


TAMPA -- When Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich issued a sweeping order in October 1998 keeping Hillsborough's desegregation efforts under court watch, her marching orders to the district were straightforward: Do more to eliminate the vestiges of segregation in schools.

On Wednesday, the district offered a reply in the form of a to-do list: Give broad choice to parents in picking schools, put more magnet programs and other enticements into inner city schools and offer greater opportunity for black students to transfer from largely black schools to largely white ones.

The intent, district officials said, is to bend over backward providing the means to integrate the schools but rely on parents and students to make the choices that would allow desegregation to happen.

"It's all voluntary," said Bill Person, who oversees student assignment and was a chief architect of the plan.

All of which may satisfy Judge Kovachevich's mandate but is likely to put the district on course for collision with its adversaries in the 41-year-old court case.

Integration, many in the black community have long argued, should not be a happy byproduct of the district's efforts. It should be a goal, achieved by multiple means designed to ensure its outcome.

Indeed, the first of seven guiding principles offered to the school district by the Hillsborough NAACP states: "In today's society and in the foreseeable future, the definition of a quality education must include an integrated education."

Warren Dawson, who is working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, said he has not received the plan yet and declined comment.

But Sam Horton, the president of the Hillsborough County chapter of the NAACP, blasted it Thursday.

"It's the stupidest thing I've ever seen," he said. "If you're going to base a plan on fads like magnet schools and other artificial treatments, once the fads fade, you're going to be right back at the original point with people in their neighborhood schools."

What is needed, Horton said, are boundaries and rules that would enforce fairer racial balances in every school, particularly the 26 with more than 40 percent black enrollment and the 24 with more than 90 percent white enrollment.

Since the plan is still preliminary, race ratios have not been ruled out, said Randy Poindexter, assistant superintendent for administration who has oversight responsibility for the plan.

But legal experts said Thursday that a plan that included race-conscious rules would likely be vulnerable to court challenges down the road.

In recent years, white parents have brought suits against race-conscious tools of desegregation, such as magnet schools with race quotas, saying they amount to reverse discrimination. And in cities and counties where desegregation efforts are no longer under court supervision, courts have agreed.

"Once schools (are no longer under court supervision), they have to prove a compelling reason to continue a race-conscious policy," said Gary Orfield of Harvard University, who has compiled statistics on the proportion of American students in segregated schools.

And that challenge, Orfield said, is not easily met.

Which explains why growing numbers of districts are opting for choice programs that leave school selection to parents, with no race-conscious rules commandeering the process -- a move that Orfield and others say will doom districts to segregated communities.

"If you have a pure choice plan, it will likely get upheld in court. But in education reality, it will produce schools with deeper problems than they've ever seen. They will get minority schools that are poor and plagued with external problems and much weaker in terms of parental involvement," Orfield said.

Nancy Peck of the Southeastern Equity Center in Miami, which assists districts with desegregation, said if magnet schools are able to draw sufficient numbers of students into black neighborhoods and black students remain willing to travel long distances to schools in suburbs, the plan might work. But, Peck said, it leaves a lot to chance.

"I just think it's somewhat idealistic," Peck said.

The outcome of the plan will likely take years to sift out, experts cautioned, but in the meantime district officials might achieve the long-elusive, long-sought goal of getting out from under federal court supervision. Indeed, Kovachevich's 1998 decision, issued after she invited the school district to request removal from court supervision, makes clear that the district did not have far to go to reach so-called unitary status.

"The court is convinced that the defendants have a short road to travel. Essentially, defendants need to demonstrate that they are willing to aggressively desegregate the school district to the maximum extent practicable," she wrote.

Officials have appealed that decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, but in the meantime are hoping that their plan is aggressive enough to persuade Kovachevich to put an end to a case that began in 1958 when black parents sued the district for running two school systems: one black and one white.

Horton, of the NAACP, is hoping otherwise. "This thing is going to create all black schools and all white schools," he said. "It's taking us back to pre-1954."

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