Letter to the Editor: Schools Re-segregated

Dear Editor,

After reading Thomas Tobin’s excellent article in the St. Petersburg Times dated April, 18, 2003, it raised the question: Will school choice lead to re-segregation?

The short answer to this question is “yes”.  In school districts around the country, court orders have been lifted, parents have been given a choice, and they have overwhelmingly elected to have their kids go to school near their homes.  That has led to schools that are, for all practical purposes, re-segregated.

In Pinellas we recently exercised our right to choose, and we came up with the same results.  Parents and grandparents want their kids near the house, plain and simple.

Would we be better off if we had integrated schools?  Yes.  But we live in a largely segregated society.  And the present reality is that in 2007 the racial ratios in Pinellas schools will be lifted.

In Pinellas we are living with a terrible irony.  It’s important to remember that this all began in 1951 in Topeka, Kan., where little Linda Brown was forced to walk a mile over a broken-down railroad yard to get to a black school, when there was a perfectly good white school just seven blocks from her house. Her father protested, the NAACP got involved, and Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas changed the landscape of education in America.  Now, in St. Petersburg, we have hundreds of black children who are going to be bussed past brand-new schools in their own neighborhood so that they can attend largely white schools on the other side of town.

The real issue is quality of education.  The real question is whether we as citizens are willing to commit ourselves to the belief that a quality public school education is the great leveler in a democratic society, a foundation upon which all people can have the opportunity to excel?  And the ultimate question is: Are willing to commit the resources now and in the years ahead to make this an on-going reality?

Now is the time for us to be vigilant.  Now is the time to get organized to see that black kids don’t get left behind after 2007.  Now is the time when we as citizens must put in place structures of accountability that will measure student achievement, resource allocation, class sizes, disciplinary policies, and other factors contributing to the quality of education, now and in the years ahead.  Now is the time for all parents and grandparents, family members and friends to make a personal commitment to the education of our children.  Now is the time for us to begin insisting that the greatest amount of resources be given to the schools that need it the most.

If we don’t do this now, then we all know what will happen.  After 2007, the majority of the money, programs, teachers, and other resources will begin moving to north Pinellas.

The “structure of accountability” I’m referring to was supposed to be provided by the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee.  DMAC was appointed by the court to serve as the community’s watchdog group, and has the responsibility to see that we don’t revert to “separate but unequal.” I was appointed as one of the first members of DMAC, and served for over a year.    However, during my tenure it became clear to me that DMAC was not fulfilling its responsibility, and was emerging as simply a “rubber stamp” for the school administration.

While on DMAC I insisted that the committee get more direct community input, and that they hold meetings in the schools throughout the county, not just at school administration headquarters in Largo.  Some DMAC members agreed, but a majority refused.  I then discovered that not only was DMAC refusing to meet in the community, but they were also distorting the public record and changing committee minutes to make it appear otherwise.  From this instance and others, it became clear to me that DMAC could not be counted on to openly and honestly protect our children.

 Until DMAC demonstrates that it will live up to its court-ordered responsibilities it falls to the community to ensure a just and quality education for all our kids.  Organizations such as AAVREC, the NAACP, the Urban League, Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, Coalition for a Safe and Drug-free St. Petersburg, the Pan Hellenic Council, the IMA, CUCA and other like-minded groups can play a huge part in seeing to it that our kids attend a school system that stresses quality, accountability, equality, and justice.

Such organizations must form committees, do research, visit schools, and meet with students, parents and teachers.  They must open up dialogues, measure success and failure, suggest remedial actions, and ensure accountability.  They must make their voices heard and join together to ensure quality and justice.

This will not be a short-term process, and it will not be easy.  Differences will emerge, and people of good conscience will disagree.  But the risk of inaction is great.

How re-segregated we will become is up to us.  And so is the quality of our kid’s education.  And so is the strength of our community.  It will take courage, honesty, and vigilance to press forward in this time of change.”

James Barrens served on the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee and is the former Head Organizer for Congregations United for Community Action.

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