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    A Times Editorial

    School plan has left the county with unintended choices

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


    Two years after accepting choice as the guiding principle behind future student assignment, members of the Pinellas School Board now have a plan and a dilemma. What they intended with choice is not exactly what they got.

    They intended less busing, less burden; they could wind up with $13-million in additional costs and hubs and transfers and earlier starting times for some schools and early-release days for elementary schools. They intended to maintain a balance between neighborhood and choice; they got the most limited neighborhood provision the district ever considered. They intended schools to offer "attractor" programs; they got ideas backed by no additional money. They intended to excite parents with all the possibilities of choice; they got mostly anger and resentment instead.

    The vote the board is scheduled to take on Tuesday is among the most important in the past half-century, yet board members are so caught up in the short-term question of how many schoolchildren to exempt from the plan that they have lost sight of the long-term objectives. The reason they keep arguing over "grandfathering" is that the plan itself is seriously flawed and needs more work. Yes, board members agreed to choice as part of a settlement to the federal court desegregation order. But they risk losing something more enduring -- the stability and support of their public school system -- if they pretend as though grandfathering, a necessary component, will magically solve the problems.

    Board chairman Max Gessner offered the warning last week: "I think choice can be a good thing. But I am also concerned about the fact that all the parents in Pinellas County have not been clamoring at the board table saying they want choice."

    Gessner is right. Choice can work in Pinellas, as it has elsewhere, to the benefit of everyone if it is carefully and wisely designed. But the current choice plan has some structural defects the board will be ill-advised to ignore.

    Developing the plan

    One of the most satisfying features of the choice plan and the federal court declaration that Pinellas no longer needs court supervision is that it was achieved through negotiation. School Superintendent Howard Hinesley and NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Enrique Escarraz worked cooperatively and put together a settlement agreement that included a $110-million commitment to build new schools in some predominantly African-American neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg and established good-faith guidelines for a future choice assignment system countywide.

    The legal framework under which they were forced to work, however, also removed educators and parents and policymakers from most of the critical design elements of the choice plan. Many of the key components were formulated through secret mediation, and neither party is allowed to say why they were chosen. As a result, the plan differs in many respects from the choice approach previously offered by a task force and school administrators. Worse, the legal maneuvers also have produced an untenable constraint at this point: the board is being told that, on the matter of school choice, it has no real choice.

    Board members, who are elected to take charge, cannot allow their voices to be silenced. If they have learned anything about choice over the past two years, it's that the details do matter and cannot be left solely to the attorneys. To do so is to invite educational and political disarray.

    To date, the board has been allowed to debate only the issue of grandfathering. Under the plan recommended by Hinesley, grandfathering is used appropriately to help maintain stability and minimize disruption in schools and neighborhoods during the transition to choice. But the animated debate between Hinesley and Escarraz about grandfathering begs the larger question: If the choice plan is so destabilizing and unpopular that board members feel the need to exempt all current children, ages 3 and older, from its effect, then shouldn't the plan itself be modified?

    Now that the board has seen some of the details that describe how choice will work, it needs to exercise some of its own policymaking discretion.

    Neighborhoods vs. choice

    No previous choice plan the county has considered would so severely limit the role neighborhoods play. As board members have seen, community support for schools is powerfully strong, and those relationships benefit the schools and their students. The current plan calls for 35 percent of the available spaces at a school to be set aside for students who live next to it, if they choose to attend. But that 35 percent "proximity preference" is insufficient and would seriously undermine the community-school ties, which is why school administrators had originally recommended 70 percent.

    Board member Linda Lerner raised the issue at a recent workshop, citing an Oct. 5, 1998 administrative memo: "The 70 percent figure allows a large portion of the neighborhood population to remain at the current school, a decision which is consistent with the desires expressed by parents in public meetings. . . . Reducing the figure to a smaller percentage . . . would appear to be counter-productive."

    But Lerner was told her idea violated the court agreement, even though the agreement doesn't mention either number. The only provision it would affect is the 42 percent limit, from 2003 to 2007, on African-American students at any given school. But students' choices to attend those schools would be affected no matter the size of the proximity preference.

    The balance between neighborhoods and choice is at the heart of what will make the system ultimately succeed or fail, and board members can't let the attorneys dictate it.

    Reducing busing

    One of the reasons the choice plan has produced such a sizeable busing price tag and unpalatable hub busing strategies is that it is among the most ambitious in the nation. It endeavors, for example, to allow a student in Tarpon Springs to pick Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport and then to provide a bus back and forth. Under the plan favored by Escarraz, the county would be divided into three choice zones for elementary and middle schools and one countywide zone for high schools. That means a student could choose from 16 high schools, as many as seven middle schools and 28 elementary schools.

    In terms of choice availability, the two Florida counties that Pinellas most often cites as models, Lee and St. Lucie, don't even come close. Lee offers, at most, four high school choices, four middle school choices and 12 elementary choices. St. Lucie offers, at most, two high school, three middle and seven elementary choices. In one Lee zone, students have only two middle and two high school choices. In one St. Lucie zone, they have only one middle and one high school choice.

    The county's choice task force recommended in 1997 that Pinellas be divided into five to 10 different choice zones for elementary and middle schools, and school administrators a year later recommended five. They also wrote that one countywide zone for high schools was unnecessary and "could result in excessive transportation costs."

    If the board is seriously concerned about the transportation burden, and about the prospect of hub busing and changing school times again, it has to question whether the small number of choice zones is worth the extraordinary cost and burden. Each dollar spent on busing comes out of the classroom, and no one wants that.

    Tailoring the plan

    One of the major obstacles to measured change is one the board itself created, suggesting in a workshop shortly after its April 1998 vote to seek unitary status that Pinellas should develop "one student assignment plan for the entire district." In concept, that goal is laudable. In practice, it forces all schools to operate the same, even if they are different. It also ignores the carefully tailored assignment strategies that the county has developed over the past three decades -- with the cooperation of the Legal Defense Fund -- to recognize the different demographics and educational needs.

    In fact, the settlement plan itself already addresses such differences. The $110-million plan to build new schools is focused solely on south St. Petersburg, and for good reason. Many schools in the black community there were either closed or converted to magnet or fundamental schools in the past three decades, a circumstance that simply doesn't exist in other portions of the county.

    Escarraz is understandably worried that different assignment approaches could produce racially discriminatory effects, but there is no reason that has to be the case. The court order that Escarraz has helped to enforce, for example, has required some south-county elementary schools to change assignments every two years and never required such rotation for north-county schools. The point was not to discriminate against those St. Petersburg students, but to recognize that those same demographic pressures didn't apply in most of the regions northward.

    The district absolutely needs to operate with one educational goal: to provide a high quality education for every student, in a racially diverse study body. But there are many different ways to achieve that goal, and the board shouldn't let attorneys turn the policy goal into an operational straitjacket.

    Time to slow down

    After three decades of student assignment based on a court order, the Pinellas district is now looking to a necessarily uncertain future. As board members have analyzed busing plans and neighborhood preferences and exemption policies, they have likely felt the same unease that caused a choice task force three years ago to end in stalemate. But they are also providing the community with something that has been largely missing in the past two years. They are beginning to surface some of the real issues about choice and the future without a federal court desegregation order.

    Will choice meet the school system's educational needs? Will it help promote future integration? Will families accept it? Will it be worth the cost?

    To the extent that choice assignment can meet those objectives, it deserves full support. But no one, black or white, is served by a new assignment system that leads to instability and revolt and, as happened in Seattle, pushes some families out of public education. The board members who may truly have believed in choice are now being treated to some jarring contradictions and some details that have to give them great pause. They had asked to build a bridge and are now finding the bridge could be costly, difficult to construct, controversial, and possibly misaligned. But the attorneys are telling them they cannot change it, not in the least.

    This is a momentous educational decision, and board members have to exercise their own judgment. The current plan needs repair. If board members refuse to make any changes, they are inviting unintended and wholly undesirable consequences.

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