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New World, Old Assumptions

A guide to current school debates

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If you're new to the area or prone to rational thought, our ongoing racial pissing contest over education probably doesn't make a lot of sense to you. You're probably wondering why it would make African-American leaders angry if the school board builds new schools in overcrowded white suburban areas when brand spanking new schools in black areas still have plenty of open seats.

The quest of the white suburban parents who have united to fight overcrowding in suburban schools must seem equally bizarre. Their biggest fear is that someone will actually solve their overcrowding problem by sending suburban kids from the overcrowded schools to the empty ones. Then they wouldn't need new schools. So they're fighting to preserve the overcrowding by keeping kids right where they are so they can fight overcrowding by building new schools. To them, it's all very logical.

This, of course, has the old civil rights era fighters in the black community up in arms. These are people who went to segregated schools and remember using the cast-off textbooks from the white schools. To them, subtle racism can still be measured in the age of equipment used in schools. A 900 square foot media center is grounds to tear down an inner city school if a suburban school has a 2,000 square foot one. The fear seems to be that if we build new schools in the suburbs, those schools will be newer than the new schools and renovated schools in the inner city, and therefore superior. To them, it's all very logical.

A younger generation of both black and liberal white leaders thinks the same way, but for different reasons. They believe that if a school has too many black kids, all the good teachers will leave and the white parents who run the PTAs and raise thousands for these schools will take their kids and follow them, which is probably true. Worse yet, if the schools that hold the remaining black kids are dank and depressing rather than shiny and new, good teachers won't be attracted to them. The only way, it is believed, that black children can get a good education is in a brand new building with the best equipment and with white kids shipped in to ensure it stays that way. A good education can still be attained in a run-down building, but only if white suburban children also attend the school in large numbers.

The problem with this is that the white parents aren't always willing to cooperate, and if they get the schools they claim they need in the suburbs, they won't have to. That's why adding new schools where most communities would logically put them -- in the fastest growing areas -- is thought of by many African-American leaders as the biggest educational disaster that could befall their kids. Before they lost control of the school board a few weeks ago, they'd planned to continue concentrating the bulk of school renovation and construction somewhere other than the suburbs, which would eventually force white kids to be bused in.

Now it looks like the new school board will spend millions undoing this.

Despite what they claim, neither of these groups is really serious about the best education "for all children." Each has a very specific group of kids they're rooting for, and the others will always be second priority. What makes these people so dangerous is that both sides are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars that could make a difference in the classroom to build schools in certain areas so they can accomplish conflicting goals of keeping black and white kids together or forcing them apart.

County Commissioner Norman Mitchell, an African-American, was blunt about this last week. They bused black kids for 30 years around here, he says. Now it should be the white kids' turn. Not so, say suburban parents willing to move to avoid sending their kids to racially diverse schools. When you figure in school building costs, home values, and the cost of moving or private school, hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars are at stake.

If the past is any indicator, millions of dollars and multiple tax increases from now, we'll be right where we were in 1969. For those of you wondering what any of this has to do with education, the answer is. . .not much. This is about Southern tradition. Since both sides believe that a good education will never be possible for children in this system until we have either perfect racial integration or uncrowded neighborhood schools, actually improving what goes on in the classroom will always be a second priority.

Their nirvanas may never come, but these folks will spend us into oblivion trying.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com.

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