Separate. Equal?

Jeff Woods, Nashville Scene, August 28, 2008

Neighborhood schools are great unless your neighborhood is the ghetto, in which case the sensible parent is putting her child on the first big yellow bus to the safer, happier place where white people live, where there’s money and hope.

In a nutshell, that’s what the city’s entire black leadership has been trying to explain to the white establishment since the debate over the Metro school rezoning plan exploded into the headlines this summer like something out of the Sixties. Predictably—since when have white people listened to black people in this city?—the point seems to have been lost, even though there’s decades of social science proving the common sense of it.

To illustrate, here’s an anecdote, one of those it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad stories. Teachers take fourth-graders on a field trip to Nashville’s jail to frighten them away from drugs and guns. But who’s afraid? The kids are smiling and waving to their relatives behind bars.

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Forty years of studies, beginning with the famous Coleman Report in 1966, have shown that sending a lot of poor kids to school in the same place is a really bad idea. It’s a central issue in education—how to teach poor urban children—and in all the research there’s no more consistent conclusion than this: In schools where poverty is concentrated, students learn less. All the problems these children face—poor health, hunger, drugs, gangs and violence, and a culture that scorns education—it’s all just too overwhelming for schools.

Poor children learn more in middle-class settings, the research shows. That happens, as the Coleman Report states, “not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on average, found among whites.” Blacks not only learn more with whites, studies show, but they gain entrée to white social networks and jobs later in life. It’s a way out.

For more than 1,300 poor children in Nashville, the school rezoning plan would close that door of opportunity, according to the city’s black leaders. Under the plan, beginning next school year (unless opponents succeed in stopping it), those students no longer will be bused 40 minutes to the upscale neighborhoods of Hillwood, but will go instead closer to home in the Pearl-Cohn cluster of schools in predominately black North Nashville.

The black enrollment at Hillwood High, located next to a country club and luxury dream homes, will drop immediately from roughly 50 percent to 25 percent. Pearl-Cohn’s eight schools, already heavily black and poor, will become that much more so. In all but two schools, more than 90 percent of the students will be African American. Overall, nearly 90 percent will be poor enough to receive federally subsidized school lunches.

Already in Nashville, the black-white educational achievement gap is yawning, with more than double the percentage of elementary- and middle-school blacks failing to perform at their grade levels in math and reading, just to name two subjects. Black leaders are convinced the rezoning plan will exacerbate that.

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To try to placate blacks, the school board promises to spend $6 million a year to add an array of social services to Pearl-Cohn schools and to pay teachers more. There are a couple of obvious thorns on this olive branch: (1) No one can guarantee the funding. The city had to dip into reserve accounts to pay for schools this year, and any future tax increase will be hard to come by, requiring voter approval under a new Metro Charter amendment. (2) And even if more money is spent in these schools, it probably won’t help students learn more.

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Despite the additional services provided at the schools, the researchers found, “the penetrating and punishing effects of neighborhood poverty undercut these efforts.” Because of the difficulties at the schools, teachers were typically less experienced, and turnover was high. Test scores didn’t go up. The students weren’t learning any better.

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Before 1998, when court-ordered busing ended in Nashville, Olive school was racially balanced. Teachers said things were better then. The students from the housing projects found role models in other children at the school.

“I really believe if children come into a diverse classroom, they model each other,” one teacher said. “You’ll find them looking and seeing the children who are getting the praises and they start to mimic that because they want to be noticed right away.”

Another teacher put it bluntly, “I think it needs to be diverse, both economically and culturally. If we are living in a diverse nation and world, we need to have that here as well. They need to know what is going on out there, not just drugs, alcohol, prostitution and new babies.”

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Actually, black leaders think they know what’s behind the rezoning plan. In their view—which is not without supporting evidence—board members, acting in cahoots with the Chamber of Commerce, want to remove as many black children as possible from Hillwood to make those schools more acceptable to white people.

It’s not a pretty conclusion, and school board members deny it. Warden retorts, “This is no more racially motivated than the man in the moon.” But is there another plausible explanation?

“I’m not saying they’re racists because I do not know what’s in their hearts,” Maynard says. “But I do know they don’t care. They shoved this down our throats.”

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This is the point in the story where you might expect the school board to acquiesce in the interest of racial harmony, demonstrating for all to see how far we’ve come as a shining city of the New South at the beginning of the 21st century. That’s some other story.

Instead, at a raucous meeting peppered with protests from the audience, the board adopted the new student assignment zones by a vote of 5-4. One black member—Antioch’s Karen Johnson—joined the board’s four whites to make the majority. Some blacks in her district, outraged by what they saw as a betrayal, started a recall petition against Johnson. She took $10,500 in contributions from business interests in her election campaign two years ago—almost two-thirds of what she raised altogether. She denied on her blog that she was unduly influenced by the chamber and called the assertion “an insult to the democratic and educational process.”

The vote left black leaders fuming. The board was obviously determined to rezone students even if it alienated an entire segment of the city. It smacked of the days of desegregation.

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White flight began in 1971 in Nashville with the start of court-ordered busing. In that year alone, 8,600 white children—18 percent of the district’s white students—left the system. Busing built Brentwood, whose population doubled to nearly 10,000 by 1980 as white families scampered just across the Davidson County line.

The white exodus didn’t stop once Nashville’s 43-year-old federal desegregation case finally ended in 1998. The Nashville school system’s white population, still at 48 percent in 2001, has now fallen to 36 percent. Forty-seven percent of the district’s 78,000 children are black. Alarmingly, the percentage of children poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches has jumped from 47 percent seven years ago to 71 percent today.

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Personally, Fox says he voted for the rezoning plan because he thinks all children should attend neighborhood schools, whether they like it or not. Entering a parallel universe of his own imagining, in which urban squalor might resemble scenes from Disney movies with bluebirds singing and fresh-scrubbed children playing on pretty green lawns, Fox dismisses all the research warning against his idea.

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Fox argues that blacks attending schools in middle-class neighborhoods haven’t done any better than those in the inner city. The state Education Department, which is now effectively running this district, could point to no data that backs up that assertion. Fox is undeterred.

“If the government is going to send children 13 miles away to their school, the government is preventing the parents from getting involved in the school at all and also preventing their children from having any after-school activity,” Fox says. “That’s not the right side of the public school system to be on.”

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Black leaders aren’t finished fighting the school board. In an inflammatory letter that compared the rezoning plan to a hangman’s gallows for children, the NAACP told the board to reconsider its vote. This month at its most recent meeting, the board ignored the demand.

Now the plan’s foes hope new board members elected this month will agree to make changes. One, Alan Coverstone, is seen as the key vote because he replaces Warden, who didn’t run for another term after helping push through the plan. But Coverstone, an administrator at Montgomery Bell Academy, says he’s OK with what’s happened.

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In that case, it’s probably on to Plan B for the NAACP: Sue the city for discriminating against black children. Oddly enough, the school board never bothered to seek legal advice on whether its action could expose the district to a lawsuit.

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Another possible lawsuit could accuse white officials of violating the state open meetings law. Garcia’s memos describe various secret meetings in which resegregation was discussed. All of them could have been illegal under the law, which at the time prohibited two or more members of a governing body from deliberating or deciding an issue except in a public meeting. A judge who finds sunshine law violations could nullify the vote on rezoning.

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