Racial Balancing Act Not Schools’ Top Priority

If anyone is entitled to speak out about the racial composition of Hillsborough County schools, it should be Sam Horton. A career educator who lived the “separate but equal” crucible, the 76-year-old president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP remains an ardent “integrationist.” It is the guiding principle of a man who grew up when Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land.

But now he and the NAACP need a new educational lens, one that reflects societal change, and puts the onus for learning where it belongs: on the learners.

Horton has seen first hand the ironic aftermath of the 1971 federal order that desegregated Hillsborough schools and mandated 80/20, white/black ratios. When the county was freed of the order in 2001, many students returned, logically enough, to their neighborhood schools. A county choice plan has proven ineffectual. Now there are numerous schools that are predominately white or black. There are classrooms where the faces literally are all white or all black.

This is not what was envisioned for the post-Brown v. Board of Education era. And yet, this is not Plessy revisited. And, no, the schools have not been “re-segregated.”

Parents, regardless of color, choosing the nearest school for the sake of convenience and a sense of neighborhood identity is not the same thing as laws directing black students to actually bypass the nearest school if necessary – in order to attend their appropriate color-coded one.

That was segregation. And it was based no less on racial inferiority than were “colored” water fountains, rest rooms and lunch counters. It doesn’t get much more demeaning than that.

That’s hardly the context applicable to today’s racially skewed schools. Moreover, positions such as Horton’s, which prioritize racial balance over all else, are ironically racist. They are saying, in effect, that predominantly black schools and all-black classrooms can not constitute the best environments for learning.

The priority shouldn’t be to dream up more and different choice offerings in the hope of luring students away from their neighborhood schools. The goal should be to equalize the neighborhood schools in all the ways that matter: physical plant, facilities, textbooks, curricular offerings and instructional experience. If it’s de facto separate, make it de jure equal.

This is all within the purview – and wherewithal — of school districts. This isn’t social engineering and pedagogical piffle, the likes of which have bussed us full cycle since 1971. This is common sense. Educators putting students in a place to succeed.

But if they don’t measure up, it isn’t because of “re-segregation.”

It’s because of factors beyond the control – and responsibility – of any school district. The keys are parental involvement and students taking advantage of educational opportunities afforded. Also critical: an environment where academic success isn’t considered un-cool by ‘hood standards. In short, stuff that racial ratios can never remedy.

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