Desegregation Timeline Meeting Details Forum: Share Your Thoughts
LARGO - "Separate but equal" faded as a guiding principle in public education after a U.S. Supreme Court decision five decades ago that forced racial integration.
But the idea, if not the phrase, is making a comeback in a proposal that would steer Pinellas County students to schools in their own neighborhoods - neighborhoods that remain clearly divided by race.
Most parents want it that way, the school district notes, pointing to surveys showing that schools close to home are a priority.
Yet dissension dogs a school assignment proposal that has been nearly two years in the making as community leaders, teachers and some parents question whether racial imbalance will rob students of resources and exposure to other cultures.
The Pinellas County School Board is to hold a workshop Nov. 20 and take final action Dec. 11. The plan would take effect next school year. Students would be grandfathered into their current schools, including those wishing to join an older sibling at school.
"The fear is that if it goes all black, then nobody really cares," said the Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
"As long as you have white folks in these schools, then the powers that be are going to care," he said. "But if it's all black, hell, let them kill each other. That's the fear."
It's the same argument that led the U.S. Supreme Court to reject "separate but equal" 53 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education - and that led courts in Florida to order desegregation in Pinellas 43 years ago.
Officials in Florida's seventh-largest school district acknowledge some schools will become "racially identifiable," but they reject the notion that the district will fall back into old patterns of neglect in poorer parts of the county.
"The fear among some people is that life will go back to what it was before we went under a court order,'' said James Madden, assistant superintendent for student assignment. "There's absolutely no way the district would let that happen."
Is the concern valid?
"I think it's one the community will watch us on, and rightfully so. I think it's one we have to be mindful of to make sure we continue to operate in a fair and equitable manner."
Districtwide, whites make up 68 percent of the enrollment of 112,174; blacks, 20 percent; and Hispanics 8 percent. The remainder are of other descent.
Most of the county's blacks, who make up about 8 percent of its 900,000-plus population, live in south St. Petersburg and in parts of Clearwater in central Pinellas and Tarpon Springs to the north.
The issue of "resegregation" is being debated nationwide as schools are released from federal court rulings designed to bring racial balance to schools. The latest came in July when the U.S. Supreme Court limited the ability of school districts to assign students by race.
As students are assigned to neighborhood schools, enrollments mirror local housing patterns and become less diverse, national studies have shown.
The proposed assignment plan in Pinellas is a way to end so-called "controlled choice," a system in place since 2003. Controlled choice was part of a settlement between the district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund requiring a halt to discrimination against black students.
Choice encouraged families to select schools outside their neighborhoods and required maintaining ratios to keep schools racially balanced. Yet fewer parents than expected have opted to exercise the choice option, as has been the case in Hillsborough County.
Hillsborough launched a parental choice plan in 2004, but the plan has concentrated races and families with lower incomes into the same schools. For the most part, parents have chosen to stay in their neighborhoods rather than select a school farther away.
Last year, a district survey of Pinellas parents found that majorities of all races supported sending their children to a close-to-home school, even though this offers fewer choices in schools and less diverse enrollments. The district sent surveys to 33,290 public school households and received responses from 7,716.
"At least upfront it looks like we're getting what we fought for," said Kym Ottaviani, a south St. Petersburg parent. "Is what we fought for maybe what's best for the entire district? Maybe not. Neighborhood schools in the long run means resegregation."
The Benefits Of Proximity
Among the benefits cited for close-to-home schools is more parental involvement, strengthening schools and neighborhoods alike.
The district would rely mostly on magnet programs and fundamental schools to create diversity at some schools. Such programs offer different educational themes to draw students from different parts of the county.
Yet the long-term consequences of resegregation remain unclear for Murphy.
He and others think segregation is inevitable but must be offset with extra attention and resources for schools in disadvantaged areas.
They fear that single-race, high-poverty schools will harm student achievement, in part because studies show teachers in such schools often are less experienced, turnover is higher and there is a lack of academic focus.
"There are still a lot of questions that haven't been answered," said Murphy, who like others favors delaying final action on the plan. "I like the concept, but if we're going to do neighborhood schools, we can't continue to distribute funds the way we have been doing. There's nothing in writing as to how we're going to address these special needs."
Community groups also have weighed in on the issue, including the St. Petersburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has criticized the plan's resegregation aspect and the prospect that it could widen the achievement gap between white and black students.
The Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, which has been pushing the district to do more to close the achievement gap, opposes reserving large percentages of seats in south county "attractor" schools for white students from north Pinellas. It also wants the school district to develop a plan ensuring that the neediest schools, those with the biggest number of struggling students, receive more resources than those with fewer struggling students.
"The key is, 'Are you giving each of them a fair and equitable education?'" said Madden, the assistant superintendent for student assignment. "That's what it's about."
IF YOU GO
The Pinellas County School Board is scheduled to decide this semester on a new way of determining which schools students will attend.When:
Initial vote set for 10 a.m. Nov. 20, with a public hearing and final vote Dec. 11.Where:
School administration building, 301 Fourth St. S.W., LargoTo learn more:
Desegregation: The Calendar
U.S. Supreme Court rules "separate but equal" education is inherently unequal in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
Legislature passes Florida Pupil Assignment Act, allowing parents to apply on behalf of their children to be transferred to a school of their choice.
Parents sue the Pinellas County School Board in effort to replace the dual school system with an integrated one.
Federal Judge Joseph Lieb approves the Pinellas school board's initial desegregation plan, which called for clustering of schools in Largo-Clearwater area. Most schools in county would remain segregated.
Lieb demands Pinellas board file a new plan to end the dual school system and fully integrate county schools.
Lieb approves Pinellas board plan that would allow nine predominantly black schools to remain as is.
U.S. Supreme Court rules the Indianola, Miss., school board must stop zoning on a residential basis, meaning lower courts could strike down such plans.
U.S. Supreme Court upholds court-ordered "busing for integration" plan in Charlotte, N.C.
Lieb orders Pinellas board to maintain a ratio of 70 percent white and 30 percent black students in all of the county's public schools.
Judge Lieb approves the Pinellas board's desegregation plan to use busing as a primary tool.
Students attend fully desegregated schools in Pinellas for first time.
Demonstrations and violence break out at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg over the school's use of the Confederate battle flag as the school's banner.
About 4,000 students, most of them black, are transferred to maintain racial balance in schools.
More than 4,000 additional students are transferred to maintain the racial balance.
U.S. Supreme Court rules that a school district that has met a court's desegregation order for a "reasonable period of time" may appeal to the court to end busing.
Federal Judge Steven Merryday rules that Pinellas County has eliminated institutional racism, which enables the district to end forced busing.
Pinellas board implements its "school choice" plan.
Compiled by Tribune researcher Michael Messano