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Focus on education, not integration

Last week, on the New York Times opinion page, two writers from The Century Foundation wrote an essay titled “The Secret to School Integration.” According to Halley Potter and Kimberly Quick, “By most measures, America’s public schools are now more racially and socioeconomically segregated than they have been for decades.”

They went on to say, “In some ways, it’s as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened. Increasing residential segregation and a string of unfavorable court cases are partly to blame. But too many local school officials are loath to admit the role that their enrollment policies play in perpetuating de facto segregation.”

One of the school districts they singled out was Pinellas County.

“In Florida, the Pinellas County school board voted to tie school zones more strictly to residential patterns, moving thousands of formerly integrated black students into underperforming schools,” they wrote. “One of the board members called the problem ‘a nationwide thing, not just us.’”

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First, it’s the height of hyperbole to suggest that the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown vs. Board decision never happened. Before the ruling, segregating students by race was public policy. The dual systems this produced are long gone, even if schools still aren’t integrated to the degree some would like.

Second, it’s true that in 2007 the Pinellas school board began to zone schools more closely to students’ homes after the district reached unitary status and no longer was under court-ordered school quotas. But it was mostly black parents, tired of their kids being bused all over the county, who most wanted a return to neighborhood schools.

Some history: In 1955, the Supreme Court authorized lower courts to issue orders to admit children to public schools “on a racially non-discriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.” But Southern states almost immediately sought ways to circumvent the decision, and 10 years after Brown, less than 2 percent of black children in the old Confederacy had white classmates.

This inertia resulted in some decrees by the courts that led to the social experiment commonly known as “forced busing.” The requirement of nondiscrimination and public access began to be used as a mandate to mix races in public schools. Additionally, it ended up inconveniencing many black students more than the pre-Brown systems.

As the courts began to release districts from forced integration orders, many students began attending their neighborhood schools. And because many of these children live in racially segregated communities, the racial composition of their schools reflected it. As a result, many civil rights activists and scholars are screaming that the nation’s public school’s are becoming “resegregated.”

We can’t claim that schools are resegregated unless we go back to the old dual systems. Desegregation did not mean there would never be majority-black schools. In some cities, like Detroit, the only way to add more diversity would be to kidnap some white kids from the surrounding suburbs. And unless we’re ready to label an all-white school as segregated, we shouldn’t do it when a school is all black.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has said or written little during his 25 years on the court worth remembering. In fact, he hasn’t asked a question from the bench in 10 years. But he nailed it in his concurring opinion in the 1995 Missouri vs. Jenkins case, which dealt with school desegregation, when he wrote: “The point of the Equal Protection Clause is not to enforce strict race-mixing, but to ensure that blacks and whites are treated equally by the State without regard to their skin color.”

The reason that case reached the court was because too many school desegregation plans departed from the simple goal of removing all vestiges of state-enforced segregation to seek the lofty and sometimes impossible mandate of integrating the schools. The opposite of segregation is desegregation, not integration, and too many civil rights groups and federal judges failed to distinguish between the two.

Again, Thomas: “It is a fundamental truth that government cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race. ... Racial isolation itself is not a harm; only state-enforced segregation is.”

We also need to keep in mind there are plenty of majority-black schools in Florida that are performing better than the ones in South St. Petersburg. It also can be argued that the causes of the consistent achievement gap lie beyond the classroom, and have little to do with how many white kids come in contact with black students.

There’s nothing wrong with a majority-black school if it has adequate resources, involved parents and dedicated teachers. We need to start focusing on those things instead of racial numbers games.

jbrown@tampatrib.com

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