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Resist that inclination to resegregate our schools

They say that the first run of Pinellas County schools' new choice system has been a "success."

They say it has been a "success" because next year, 96 percent of all students will go to a school that they wanted.

True, relatively few kids didn't get their choice and will have to be sent elsewhere. True, unfortunately, too big a share of those kids are black.

But overall, they call it a "success."

Okay, enough with the quote marks.

Here's what has to happen for choice to be a full-fledged success:

We have to persuade enough parents to choose a school OTHER than the closest one. We have to "attract" them elsewhere.

Hasn't happened. Not really. Not enough.

First of all, to escape the political heat, the Pinellas School Board exempted the vast majority of existing students. We let them stay put. We said they were "grandfathered."

Of those families that really did have to choose, most still chose a school close by, if not the very closest. Not many parents were "attracted" to schools farther away.

White parents who got their choice are happy, of course.

Black parents who got their choice are happy, too.

After all, most parents rightly care more about the concrete _ where will my kid go? _ than abstract goals such as "racial balance."

The hard truth is that we, black and white alike, would most likely resegregate the schools voluntarily if we could.

If we waved a magic wand tomorrow and said everybody gets to go where they want, then everybody would pick the closest school.

And because our society is still segregated to a large degree, especially when it comes to where we live, our schools would naturally become segregated, too.

Well, guess what? That magic wand is going to be waved. It will be waved in 2007. That's when the current "guidelines" for racial balance expire.

Unless before then we start attracting enough parents into making different choices, Pinellas schools will resegregate.

There are people of all races who think maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Enough social engineering, they say wearily. Let white kids go where they want. Let black kids go to school with other black kids in a supportive, nurturing environment where, at least a few hours each day, they are not a "minority."

Apartheid by choice.

Now, what I am about to say might sound like it comes from the Stone Age of liberalism, but here it is anyway:

Segregation of the public schools by any means is wrong. It is wrong even if it is by our choice. It is wrong even if it is universally popular among black and white parents.

Separate still means unequal.

It does. The U.S. Supreme Court knew it in 1954. Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who won that case and later became a justice himself, knew it.

"Equal," Marshall said, "means getting the same thing at the same time in the same place."

Black parents who now say, hopefully, that maybe the School Board can maintain "equal" segregated schools are ignoring their lifetime of practical experience.

I won't even trot out the REAL liberal, change-the-world '60s stuff, that at least for a few years in our childhood we ought to exist with people who are different from us.

So let's just stick with the practical. Separate means unequal. One day, down the road, we will pay for it, either in court or in our society in ways we can't even imagine.

Am I saying that we should go back to the old ways of forced busing that everybody hated?

No. Not yet. But here's the nut of it:

The School Board has to get real about attracting parents to different schools. It has to light a fire under each principal to develop those attractors. It has to kick butts. It has to reward and punish on the basis of how much creativity and energy they put into it.

Otherwise, the School Board members will deliberately be choosing failure, no matter how many people slap them on the back along the way and praise their "success."

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