Law & Courts

Fla. District Pressed on Black Achievement

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 11, 2005 4 min read

African-American students in Pinellas County, Fla., could get the opportunity in court to show that they receive inferior educations and face discriminatory practices in classrooms.

A 5-year-old lawsuit arguing that the 113,000-student county school district fails to provide a high-quality education to its 21,000 black students was upheld as a class action in a ruling issued late last month by a three-judge panel of the state’s Second District Court of Appeal, in Lakeland, Fla.

In the Sept. 28 ruling, Judge Douglas A. Wallace wrote that “from the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education to the present, courts have generally allowed claims such as the ones presented by the class representatives involving allegations of racial discrimination in the public schools to proceed as class actions.”

The ruling furthers a deepening divide in the West Florida community, which includes St. Petersburg, pitting those who believe that societal and cultural factors—such as poverty and a lack of parental involvement—are chiefly to blame for African-American students’ bleak academic outcomes against those who believe that the school system has largely abdicated its responsibility to educate all children.

“[The school district] is saying, ‘We’re doing the best that we can,’ ” said Chimurenga Waller of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a St. Petersburg-based activist organization sympathetic to the lawsuit’s claims. “We’re saying, show us what you’ve been doing. But it’s a smoke screen—there’s nothing there.”

Charter School Plan

According to Mr. Waller, research conducted by the plaintiffs shows that black students are almost twice as likely to be expelled from school as their white classmates. District statistics show that roughly 40 percent of Pinellas County’s black students earn high school diplomas, compared with about 70 percent of white students in 2002-03. And state test scores show that fewer than a third of the county’s black students and almost two-thirds of its white students were reading at grade level in 2003-04.

An assistant for Pinellas County Assistant Superintendent Ron Stone said the district has been asked by its lawyers not to comment on the lawsuit. But district spokesman Sterling Ivey told the St. Petersburg Times last week: “Even if we decide not to appeal further, we’re prepared to go to court to defend our actions.”

Superintendent Clayton M. Wilcox told the newspaper last month, “It’ll be interesting to see if [the plaintiffs] can prove their case on the merits.”

Mr. Waller said the 2000 lawsuit, Crowley v. Pinellas County, evolved from a failed effort among some local residents to open a charter school in a poor section of a black community in the county in the late 1990s.

The Pinellas County school board denied the contract to open Marcus Garvey Academy because the school’s organizers could not guarantee that 55 percent of its enrollment would consist of white students, in accordance with the district’s racial ratios for student assignment.

Those ratios are a byproduct of a 1964 desegregation lawsuit against the district. A federal judge declared the Pinellas system unitary, or free of the vestiges of segregation, in 2000. The district has since adopted a plan to encourage and maintain integration by parental choice once the court-ordered ratios end in 2008.

Frustrated by the roadblocks that barred the opening of their charter school, the organizers, led by Tampa-based lawyer Guy M. Burns, focused on ensuring all African-American students were receiving a high-quality education, a right guaranteed under the Florida Constitution.

William L. Crowley, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit on behalf of his son Akwete Osoka, now 13, said African-American parents are aware of how bad the schools are for their children, but don’t know what to do. Mr. Crowley’s wife had planned to teach at Marcus Garvey Academy, where the couple hoped to enroll their son.

But Mr. Crowley stressed that the full blame for lagging achievement among African-American students should not be on the schools.

“I agree that parents bear some of the responsibility for educating our children, and we’d like to take that responsibility. But you didn’t let us,” Mr. Crowley said, referring to the failed charter school application.

Now, he added: “We want public education to take on its responsibility, too.”

Maree F. Sneed, a Washington lawyer who has worked on numerous desegregation cases, said in an e-mail that the Crowley case “appears to be a hybrid of desegregation/discrimination suits on one hand and educational adequacy suits on the other hand.”

Ms. Sneed noted that certification as a class action is not necessarily an indication of how strong a case is.

Rosa A. Smith, the president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a philanthropy in Cambridge, Mass., that has focused on improving the education of black males said she believes the education of black students in Pinellas County schools should be tested in the courts.

The district, she acknowledged, does not have control over all of the factors that may influence a child’s education. But, she added: “What happens in schools matters.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Fla. District Pressed on Black Achievement

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
Teaching Live Online Discussion How to Develop Powerful Project-Based Learning
How do you prepare students to be engaged, active, and empowered young adults? Creating a classroom atmosphere that encourages students to pursue critical inquiry and the many skills it requires demands artful planning on the
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts U.S. Supreme Court Rules for Cheerleader Who Posted Vulgar Snapchat Message
The decision was 8-1 for a student who'd been disciplined by her school, but the court suggests some off-campus speech may be regulated.
12 min read
Image shows a picture of Brandi Levy in her cheerleading uniform in front of Mahanoy Area High School.
Brandi Levy, now an 18-year-old college freshman, was a cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania when she made profane comments on Snapchat that were at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case on student speech rights.
Danna Singer/Provided by the American Civil Liberties Union
Law & Courts U.S. Supreme Court Rules for Athletes Over NCAA in Case on Education-Related Compensation
In a case watched in high school sports, the justices hold that some limits on college athlete compensation violate federal antitrust law.
5 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.
iStock/Getty
Law & Courts Let Transgender Student Play on Girls' Team, Feds Say, Supporting Her Suit Over a State Law
A West Virginia law barring transgender girls from girls' sports teams violates Title IX and U.S. Constitution, the Justice Department says.
3 min read
Advocates for transgender people march from the South Dakota governor's mansion to the Capitol in Pierre, S.D., on March 11, 2021, to protest a proposed ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues.
Advocates for transgender people march from the South Dakota governor's mansion to the Capitol in Pierre, S.D., to protest a ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues, one of dozens of measures considered in state legislatures this year.
Stephen Groves/AP
Law & Courts Some Takeaways for Educators in Supreme Court Rulings on Obamacare, Religious Liberties
The justices rejected a challenge to Obamacare on standing grounds while ruling narrowly in a case involving foster care in Philadelphia.
6 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021.
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP