A Florida school district plans to seek permission from a federal judge next month to set aside the student-transfer requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act because of fears that the federal mandate will undermine its court-ordered school choice plan.
The plan, which includes racial ratios for student assignment, is the centerpiece of an agreement marking the final chapter in Pinellas County’s 1964 desegregation case, which spawned three decades of mandatory busing. U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday declared that the West Florida district had reached “unitary” status in 2000, meaning that the 113,000-student district, which includes St. Petersburg, had rid itself of the vestiges of segregation.
The district spent several years crafting its choice plan—and more than $110 million on new school construction—to encourage and maintain integration by parental choice once the racial ratios for student assignment and the court order come to an end in 2008.
But with 22 elementary schools enrolling 12,000 students in a predominantly African-American part of the county expected to be eligible to allow student transfers in August 2004 because of poor test scores, district officials believe that Pinellas’ choice plan would have to be scrapped.
“We would like the federal judge to recognize that we have irreconcilable differences between No Child Left Behind and our choice plan,” said John Bowen, the Pinellas County school board’s lawyer.
School districts nationwide that are still operating under desegregation orders are wrestling to comply with the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Schools receiving Title 1 aid for disadvantaged students that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” two years running must allow students to transfer to schools that have made that mark under the law.
While some experts in school law and desegregation believe that school districts can adapt their desegregation plans to accommodate the student transfers, others find fault with the federal legislation.
“It’s just plain ignorance to think that you can issue a regulation that can override the constitutional obligation of the federal court,” said Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project. “It’s created a lot of confusion.”
Some residents in Pinellas County are concerned that the district is too preoccupied with racial quotas and may be trying to avoid compliance with the federal law’s goal of closing the achievement gap between white students and their African-American classmates.
“Right now, I’m tired of the numbers,” said Watson L. Haynes II, the co-chairman of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students in St. Petersburg. “Kids are not being educated. Choice is no choice when it comes to African-American students.”
U.S. Department of Education regulations note that school districts with voluntary or court- ordered desegregation plans are not exempt from the No Child Left Behind law. The department advises districts to change their desegregation orders to fulfill their constitutional obligations and comply with the federal law.
Dan Langan, a department spokesman, said although the federal education law does not “supersede” desegregation orders, district officials are expected to find a way to comply with the requirements of both the courts and the No Child Left Behind Act.
For example, Education Department officials worked with the Richmond County, Ga., school system to ensure that the student- transfer option would be followed. Last year, a federal judge granted the 33,000-student system, which includes Augusta, a yearlong waiver from the transfer option to develop a transportation plan for students wanting to switch schools.
This year, the Georgia district has 13 schools whose students are eligible for transfers; 500 students opted to change schools.
Maree F. Sneed, a Washington-based lawyer who works on desegregation cases nationwide, said most school districts are trying to rework their desegregation plans to take the federal law into account.
Districts can designate the student-transfer opportunities to work within their desegregation plans, she said. Some are limiting transfer options to two schools, she added, but few districts are experiencing high numbers of student transfers.
Both the Harvard Civil Rights Project and the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights in Washington are studying the effects of the student-transfer option on school districts.
William L. Taylor, the chairman of the commission, said he hopes to find that the federal law’s transfer option acts in a “desegregative way.”
Schools that fail to meet the federal requirement would generally have high concentrations of minority and poor students, he said, while schools meeting the No Child Left Behind law’s mark would be likely to have large numbers of white students who do not live in poverty.
Mr. Taylor cautioned that school districts seeking relief from the student-transfer option should be examined carefully.
“We would be unhappy to see people trashing the transfer provisions without any adequate reason,” he said.
Ms. Sneed said she’s not aware of any district trying to use its desegregation plan as an excuse to skirt the No Child Left Behind Act.
“You’ve got to figure out how to obey the law, even if you don’t like the law,” Ms. Sneed said.
Pinellas County, however, may be unique, she noted, because of the high academic standards Florida uses to determine whether schools make adequate yearly progress.While some districts are coping with transfers out of two or three schools, she said, Florida districts, like Pinellas, could be faced with many more. (“State Reports on Progress Vary Widely,” Sept. 3, 2003.)
Pinellas County’s choice plan, which is in its first year, divides the district into attendance areas—four elementary zones, three middle school zones, and one countywide zone for high schools.
Students are guaranteed a seat in their particular attendance area, but are not assigned to a specific school. Magnet schools and special academic programs and themes aim to encourage diverse enrollments. Under the plan, African-American student enrollment can’t exceed 42 percent at any school.
Roughly 68 percent of the district’s students are white, 19 percent are black, 7 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are Asian-American, and the remaining 3 percent are multiracial or Native American. This year, African-American student enrollment at four schools hit 40 percent.
The 22 schools that Pinellas district officials predict won’t make the federal grade are in the same elementary school area: predominantly African-American neighborhoods in southern St. Petersburg. Only three schools in that area did not fail to make progress, and two of those schools are new.
Mr. Bowen, the school board lawyer, said students attending the 22 schools will likely transfer elsewhere, upsetting the racial balance in that elementary attendance area.
“This is not speculation,” he said. “This is a given that’s going to happen no matter what we do.”
Superintendent J. Howard Hinesley called the No Child Left Behind law’s transfer option “counterproductive” to the years of effort spent to reach an end to the district’s desegregation case. Mr. Hinesley, who is set to retire next year after 14 years leading the system, said maintaining the racial ratios for four more years will give the community the opportunity to support the development of a diverse student population in its schools.
Without the ratios, Mr. Hinesley predicted that “the district will end up with a substantial number of racially identifiable schools, which in this community historically has brought about a lot of accusations of unbalanced resources.”
Mr. Hinesley stressed that the district isn’t looking for an excuse to avoid implementing all of the federal law’s requirements—only the student transfers.
The NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, which represents the plaintiffs in the desegregation case, has yet to determine what its response will be to the school district’s planned motion, said Rick Escarraz, the St. Petersburg-based lawyer that has worked on the case since 1973.
“There’s a greater potential for a greater quality of education in an integrated system than in a separate system,” he said.
Mary L. Tyus Brown, a Pinellas County school board member, said she would prefer that the district focus more of its energies on preventing schools from being labeled low-performing.
Still, she said the district helped to create the conflict between the federal law and its school choice plan by drawing attendance areas that left a high concentration of minority students in one zone.
Ms. Brown said she wants the district to follow the No Child Left Behind Act, but she doesn’t want to see a return to segregated schools.
“If the district is committed to the high achievement of students and diversity,” Ms. Brown asserted, “then we can do this.”