A `perfect storm' looms over Southern schools

Racial isolation heightens strains on resources

September 01, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Resegregation is combining with two other trends to create a "perfect storm" threatening Southern public schools, says John Charles Boger of the University of North Carolina law school.

At a daylong symposium Friday on the resegregation of Southern schools, Boger noted that Southern students are less likely to study alongside students of other races and ethnicities than they were in the 1980s, when court-ordered desegregation was most strictly enforced.

This renewal of racial isolation, accompanied by two other changes in a "simultaneous convergence, could send the public schools of the South reeling off course," he said.

They are:

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in January, reinforces the importance of high-stakes tests designed to increase accountability for students and schools. Most of the schools that fail under that system have student bodies that are heavily black, Latino or poor.

Uncertainty over how the South's many low-tax states can entice highly qualified teachers to stay in a low-income or high-minority school.

Comparing these developments to the weather patterns that came together to create 80-foot waves and sink the Andrea Gail in the Atlantic in 1991, Boger said, "They could well become the perfect storm for public schools in the South."

As Southerners try to cope with all three challenges, he said, "There is grave danger that future debates over educational resources and educational improvement will become framed in politically destructive racial terms."

Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, and the University of North Carolina's new Center for Civil Rights joined the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in sponsoring the event.

Some of the 18 other researchers who released new studies at the symposium were less pessimistic than Boger, stressing evidence that scattered cities and districts throughout the South had managed to resist the resegregation trend.

Public schools aren't as segregated as neighborhoods in the rapidly suburbanizing South, pointed out Charles Clotfelter of Duke University.

"One could say the public schools are contributing to closer contacts between school-age children than they get anywhere else," he said.

"Today I'm hearing more statistics than you could shake a stick at that underline what I think most of us knew all along," said Minnijean Brown Trickey of Little Rock, Ark.

She was one of the "Little Rock Nine" African-American students who, amid an enormous and often frightening political uproar, became the first nonwhite students in that city's Central High School in 1967.

"Things are better than they used to be and different than they used to be, but they've been sliding back toward worse in recent years," said Trickey, who received a standing ovation when she was noticed in the last row of the audience.

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