After decades of busing for desegregation followed by years of school choice, the Pinellas County School Board has in recent times settled on zoned schools as the best system to give families some certainty about education. The concept is simple: Live in a zone, attend the school in that zone. But that isn't the case right now for about 1,900 elementary students who are frozen out of their zoned schools because no spots are open. That is one of many important reasons the board should agree to redraw the lines and to limit exceptions when it takes its first vote on the issue Tuesday.
From changes in student populations to artifacts of the crazy-quilt assignment schemes of the past, student assignment is out of whack. The School Board has a chance to restore some sense to this system by redrawing the lines for 27 of the 64 zoned elementary schools and, with reasonable exemptions, sending students back to their zoned schools. On balance, the plan is fair and a big step in the right direction. While the board may tinker with some lines, it should move forward by voting to set a hearing and then hold the final vote next month as scheduled.
The lines must be changed. Crowding has overtaxed some schools while others have empty space. One elementary school had to convert its technology lab into a classroom, meaning tech instruction was stuck in an audiovisual closet. At another school, five of the six first-grade classes are held in portables, which have no rest rooms. At another, lunch starts at 9:35 a.m. and runs past 12:20 p.m. because the school's crowding far outstrips the cafeteria's capacity. This is a system gone awry, and convenience in school choice is interfering with quality education.
The proposal before the board would allow next year's fifth-graders to stay at their current school, if they choose. It would make other exceptions as well. In most cases, if students are not at their zoned school, they would have to provide their own transportation, which is a fair compromise. The changes would affect only zoned schools, leaving countywide magnet and fundamental schools out of the mix.
The key is to wind down the remnants of the old system quickly, with heart, to create a true quilt of zoned schools. While it is proper to let next year's fifth-graders stay to finish at their current school, their siblings should attend the zoned school. Otherwise, one sibling could pull another sibling into a nonzoned school in a never-ending loop that would keep vestiges of the old system long past any reasonable expiration date.
The proposal would not eliminate all portable classrooms, nor would it allow every student in a zone to attend the zoned school. But it would go a long way along both of those paths. And in drawing lines that are reasonable and wouldn't have to be changed anytime soon, the plan would set up the chance for school communities to grow and for families to have a sense of relief that when they move into a school's zone, their children will actually be able to attend that school. It may have an unintended positive effect: While families will clearly seek to live in zones that have schools perceived to be good, schools in other zones may see a rise in community activism to improve the school in their neighborhood; now it is their school, the place where their children will be educated. It could lead to a rise in pride of place in the school system.