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A "good will gesture'

Lest black parents in Pinellas County be confused about the School Board's intentions in trying to remove a desegregation court order that has existed for 27 years, board member Barbara Crockett has helped to clarify the matter. In voting to reject a cooperatively negotiated plan with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that would have loosened up busing requirements and shifted focus to classroom performance, board members did not worry about their commitment to provide better education opportunities for black students.

To put it in Crockett's words, the educational promise was made only "as a sort of good will gesture toward the Legal Defense Fund."

In other words, the school system never was really serious. Though black students long have shouldered the greatest burden for busing, and alarming disparities in the educational performance of black and white students remain, at least some board members are content to look the other way.

They proclaim they want to shift the school system's focus from court-ordered ratios to classroom learning, but their eagerness to ignore their promises to black and low-income students suggests a less noble motive.

This is not new. One of the reasons the board suffers from a lack of trust in the black community is that it has repeatedly ignored attempts to examine real educational issues for black and low-income students. Why are blacks disproportionately tracked into remedial courses? Why are blacks disproportionately disciplined? Do blacks suffer alienation in the schools to which they are bused? Do schools set lower expectations for black and low-income students?

Though the answers to such questions don't always lie with the school system or with race, former Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Doug Tuthill observes, correctly, that the schools have a role and they are not fulfilling it.

"Four years ago, the School Board created a coalition of high-poverty schools and promised to turn these schools into models for what works," Tuthill writes (see the front of this section). "But as soon as the media attention faded, so did the board's commitment."

Board members are too busy admiring their thank-you notes to analyze the parental frustrations they claim to be addressing. Thousands of students ride a bus to school each day willingly, sometimes passing a dozen other schools to attend a particular school or program they believe serves them well. The people who voice frustration and anger are generally reacting to the education they are receiving at the end of the bus ride. Moving these students closer to home, then, won't necessarily help them learn any better. It simply allows some parents and some politicians to, in the short term, "feel" better.

As if to reinforce the baldly political nature of their actions, board members now have followed up their vote by asking a former state politician, not an educator, to advise them on their next step.

Board member Susan Latvala, whose husband is a state senator, explains: "It's not that we did it wrong. We just want to do it right. . . . Obviously we want to be very cautious."

Obviously, the board has rejected the cautious approach. Now its members are worried about image. They should be. Their "good will gesture" to focus on learning was offered, by all appearances, in distinctly bad faith.

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