Friday, December 30, 2011

EDITORIAL >> School case drags on

It came as no surprise that the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals this week overturned U.S. District Judge Brian Miller’s order earlier this year ending state desegregation funding for Pulaski County schools.

The appeals court ruled that Judge Miller should have held a hearing before deciding to cut off funds to the three school districts. The court did declare North Little Rock desegregated, along with Little Rock, while upholding Miller’s ruling that the Pulaski County Special School District is far from desegregated.

Although as much as $70 million a year in state funding could end as soon as there’s a proper hearing, PCSSD is far from being declared “unitary,” or fully integrated, unlike the other county schools. So court supervision, like the state takeover of PCSSD, could continue for years.

The Office of Desegregation Monitoring, which has been overseeing the districts for several years, recently criticized obvious the lack of progress in PCSSD. The appeals court excoriated the district for its failures to educate students, for its delaying tactics and for its refusal to build new schools where they are most needed.

As The Leader’s staff writer Rick Kron reported here two weeks ago, the picture is especially grim in Jacksonville, where more schools are out of compliance with the Office of Desegregation Monitoring and remain underused than any other set of schools in the Pulaski County Special School District.

The office found five Jacksonville area schools have too many African-American students, while one doesn’t have enough.

Also the student population at five area school is half or less than what the buildings can hold. Two schools are approaching capacity, while one is slightly over its capacity level.

Under the guidelines of the district’s Plan 2000, elementary schools are supposed to have an African-American enrollment of between 20 and 48 percent of the student population. The actual numbers are well over that.

At the secondary level, the acceptable range is from 20 to 60 percent African-American. Again, minority enrollment is well above those numbers.

The dozen charter schools in Pulaski County, which run on school tax funds, will get a chance to defend their operations in the school desegregation case. That is a good thing because it will help illuminate the most troubling aspect of this long-running litigation: whether the charter schools help or hinder equality of educational opportunity in the county.

Supporters of charter schools, here and nationally, have always maintained that educational equality is their purpose, but the evidence of their success has been spotty.

U. S. District Judge Price Marshall seems intent on getting to the bottom of that issue. Thus he gave attorneys for the open-enrollment charter schools approved by the state Board of Education a chance to make their case when he takes up the Little Rock schools’ motion to have the charter schools and the state board held accountable for hindering the elimination of racial and social disparities in school outcomes in the county.

The charter school attorneys mainly wanted to enter the case to challenge the very foundation of the 20-year-old desegregation settlement, but Judge Marshall prudently said they could not enter the case at this late date and reorient the litigation. They should focus instead on the real issues in the case.

The Little Rock school attorney asked the court 20 months ago to rule that the state Board of Education, which is supposed to be aiding the equalization of education in Pulaski County, was hindering it by carelessly approving charter schools, which rob the public schools of motivated students and parents and of money with which to educate the remainder of students, who tend to be the most educationally needy.

The public schools’ attorney argues that rather than taking students who have not performed well and trying new approaches to advance them, the charter schools have taken better students and shed the poorer ones back to the public schools. It has upset two of the desegregation remedies in the settlement of the school case, magnet schools and majority-to-minority transfers between districts.

The record of charter schools, here and elsewhere, has been uneven. There is growing evidence that they tend not to raise the outcomes of children, at least not uniformly.

Perhaps the hearings in the spring, with the charter schools’ participation, will shed some light on that question. It is a vital one, not merely for the charter schools and the youngsters who attend them but for all the children in the public schools, who are affected at least as much and perhaps much more.