MAXWELL:  Black families have no choice in Pinellas

5/14/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I see nothing wrong with public schools becoming all-black or all-white. I want everyone to know upfront where I stand on the school desegregation controversy in Pinellas County. Few issues reveal our hypocrisy and anguish over race more than that of the ethnic makeup of our public schools.

In the wake of federal desegregation orders being lifted, some districts, trying to eradicate race as a consideration in enrollment, have gone as far as to make family income the most important factor. This effort is called “economic integration.” Other districts, such as Pinellas, have devised choice programs that ostensibly let parents decide where their children attend.

Remember, these plans are driven by the lifting of federal court orders that, for 30 years, attempted to engineer some semblance of racial parity in our public schools. The engineering mission failed not because it was inherently flawed, but because it could not compensate for Americans’ native racial animosity and instinct to group themselves along racial and ethnic lines.

Pinellas schools have been declared “unitary,” which means they no longer legally discriminate by maintaining dual systems for black and white. Here, a school’s enrollment _ no matter the region of the county _ cannot be more than 42 percent black as required by a federal court order. These ratios are here to stay until 2007, when the system will change to something dubbed “voluntary integration.”

To prepare the way, in part, for voluntary integration (choice), Pinellas built three new schools in predominantly African-American areas. The whole scheme is a deception, a big fat lie. The School Board should be ashamed of itself.

Here is why. Because of the white/black enrollment ratios, hundreds of black children who chose to attend schools within walking distance of their homes cannot do so. Members of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement were right on Monday to protest the choice plan. Because black students cannot attend the schools in their neighborhood and because whites will not attend these schools, many seats remain empty, which makes no sense whatsoever.

In front of the James Sanderlin Elementary School along 22nd Avenue S, Uhuru president Chimurenga Waller said the choice plan’s failure is “unacceptable.” He told the St. Petersburg Times that the ratios were unnecessary because the school system has been declared unitary, devoid of the vestiges of institutional discrimination. In the most ironic way, he is right. Why wait until 2007 to lift the ratios? The only reason is the court order.

Meanwhile, thousands of black students will be shoved into buses and hauled out of their communities to attend predominantly white schools in other parts of the county until 2007. Until the current school year, white students had to share some of the burden of keeping the ratios balanced. Now, most white students can choose their schools.

Guess which schools they do not choose? Those spank-and-brand-new facilities in the black areas. Think about the injustice: White kids get to pick their schools and are not forced to be bused into a black neighborhood. The School Board lost its nerve and gave many of the white parents their way. Black parents and their concerns were trashed, and their children were told to take a hike _ on buses.

Waller and his followers are justified in their outrage. If flawed court orders can be handed down, they can be fixed. Most Pinellas schools will become all-white and all-black after 2007. Why wait? Instead of focusing on ratios, Waller said, the district should be helping black students achieve academically.

I could not agree more. Here is the ideal scenario: Give black parents the same freedom that white parents have to choose the neighborhood school down the street or a few blocks away. Find ways to attract the best and brightest teachers to work in these schools. Provide state-of-the-art equipment and the resources needed for these schools to succeed. No more shell games. Give black children the same chance to learn as white children have. Do not bus black children unless they want to be bused.

I will bet a month’s salary that if we let blacks have neighborhood schools as part of their choice plan, parents will become true stakeholders and will participate in their children’s lives at school. Everyone, black and white, will benefit.

When race is at issue, we fear the inevitable. And we fear the truth: Left to our own devices, we will segregate ourselves along racial and ethnic lines. Whites will associate with whites. Blacks will associate with blacks. After 2007, voluntary integration will teach us this harsh lesson.