BROOKSVILLE — African-American families in South Brooksville will soon get the official word: Their children are just as entitled to school choice as are students from any other part of Hernando County.
In letters being sent out Monday, families will be told they have the right to "opt out" of a racial busing plan that, since the 1960s, has sent black children to schools many miles from their home. They'll also learn they have the right to apply to another school besides their neighborhood school under the district's controlled choice plan, just like other families.
Those rights aren't new. But they haven't been emphasized in recent years, as the district waits for a federal decision on whether it can formally end a desegregation plan designed for the grandparents of today's schoolchildren.
And that's a pity, said Superintendent Wayne Alexander.
"I'm saddened by the fact that we haven't always informed people, but that's the past," he added Thursday.
Back in 1965, there was no such thing as school choice for African-American families. Under a Jim Crow-era housing code, they could only live on the south side of town, and their children could only attend the all-black Moton School.
Compared to that, it felt like progress to many black families when the federal government forced the county in 1965 to adopt a so-called voluntary busing program, or face a court order to do so.
The numbers of students being bused to other schools has waned since the 1970s, when around 650 students were bused to Spring Hill schools. Last spring just 75 students were bused, with that number rising to 93 students last fall, said student services director James Knight.
Some families took advantage of a district offer to opt out of the busing program beginning in the 1990s.
Others value the option or have grown attached to schools like Westside Elementary, despite their distance, said officials from the local chapter of the NAACP last year.
But at a recent town meeting in South Brooksville, several residents told Alexander they weren't aware they could "opt out" of the plan and attend neighborhood schools, or apply to another school under the choice plan.
"That's something all parents have the right to take advantage of," school social worker Cynthia Jackson told the crowd.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools cannot assign students to schools in a "non-individualized, mechanical way" on the basis of race. But it left open the possibility that districts could take steps to prevent the isolation of minority students in just a few schools.
Those rulings shed little clarity on Hernando's situation. While around 7 percent of Hernando children are African-American, that percentage varies from as much as 16 percent in some schools to less than 2 percent in others.
The federal Department of Education has yet to rule on the county's 2006 request to end its busing program, Alexander said.
But in the meantime, he said, the district feels it is within its legal rights to remind families of their rights under the school choice plan — even if that means most or all black families decide to abandon busing.
"It feels safe to give families a choice," Alexander said. "It feels like what's best for kids."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.