August 13, 2007

Ruling Can Light Way to Better Schools

When U.S. Dist. Judge Bernice Donald concluded last month that the Shelby County Schools district has not yet overcome the relics of segregation, the stunned reaction from school officials was unequivocal.

"Certainly we are disappointed by the ruling," said school board chairman David Pickler.

"It could have some very dramatic negative effects on the children of Shelby County," school attorney Rick Winchester added. Winchester went on to suggest that Donald's ruling could mean that education dollars would be diverted to busing and moving children to schools farther from their neighborhoods.

This practice of crying "bus" is a disservice to those the county schools serve and a distraction from what ought to be the goal of all parties involved -- providing the highest quality education to all Shelby County students. Compliance with Donald's ruling is -- forgive me -- not so black and white as the school officials seem to suggest.

Busing is not the only way for a school district to become unitary, and among the potential solutions, busing is probably the least appealing. Rather than frightening parents by alluding to the possibility of busing, school officials would do well to think outside of the busing box for creative ways to increase both the diversity and the educational quality in the Shelby County Schools. Where Winchester sees in the ruling the possibility of "dramatic negative effects," I see an unprecedented opportunity for Shelby County Schools to become a national model for equity and excellence in education.

Donald wrote that the true goal of any school desegregation plan is to provide equal educational opportunity to all students by eliminating racial isolation. For decades, as districts across the country were forced to comply with the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education, the focus was on the elimination of racial isolation. Educational considerations were too often only secondary considerations.

In the 1960s and '70s, eliminating legally sanctioned racial separation was very important. But in 2007, with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, districts like Shelby County have the opportunity to move beyond simplistic solutions such as busing and implement desegregation plans that embrace both the educational and the social ideals of Brown.

Using a combination of neighborhood schools with carefully drawn attendance zones, magnet schools that provide a variety of educational choices for parents, and lenient transfer policies combined with racial targets similar to those in Donald's ruling, districts across the country have achieved increased diversity by lifting the quality of all schools. In some instances, transportation is necessary, but it is far easier to convince a parent to accept busing when his or her child will be bused voluntarily to an exceptional school than when the child will be bused across town to a school no better, or worse, than the neighborhood school.

There is no reason to think the county schools cannot come up with a similar plan tailored to Shelby County in response to Donald's ruling. Devising such a plan is far more difficult than simply imposing busing, but county school officials need look no further than the Memphis City Schools to see the devastating effects busing can have on a district. The challenge is for school officials to resist the temptation to defensively use the threat of busing to criticize Donald's ruling and instead to develop a thoughtful, multifaceted desegregation plan that creates a world-class school district.

"In those instances where the Board adopted the Court's goal as its own," Donald wrote, "it has progressed with remarkable speed." The district should not miss this opportunity to adopt the goal of improving education across the system while eliminating instances of racial isolation. The initial signs of such adoption are not positive -- the board has already said it will appeal Donald's ruling -- but if the district does embrace the spirit of the ruling, there is no reason it should not progress with remarkable speed.