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School choice plan needs work

The Hillsborough County school district is beginning a school choice plan in fall of 2004. Presently, 15,000 students are bused to schools far away from their homes to meet desegregation standards set up 30 years ago. Now, by offering special interest programs at schools, county officials hope that students will choose to attend schools based on their interests, thus desegregating themselves.

Pinellas County will begin its school choice plan this fall, and has already run into problems with confused parents and thousands of students missing the deadline to turn in their choices.

Hillsborough hopes to avoid the problems Pinellas has faced by hosting eight information sessions at area schools, giving parents and children a chance to ask questions about the school choice plan. Each family is required to indicate its top three choices for a school. Then, students will be randomly assigned to a school based on where they live and space availability. This will be done by a computer.

At a school board student forum last week, students expressed their concerns about the school choice plan. Issues were raised on whether the new program would put one school at advantage for sports, and how the county plans on avoiding the problems Pinellas County is encountering.

What was the board’s response to these concerns? They don’t know the answers, but board member Carolyn Bricklemyer was quoted by The Tampa Tribune as saying it was encouraging to them that the students asked such “intelligent questions.”

One clear advantage of Pinellas’ plan is that school assignments will be made with racial percentages as a factor. Hillsborough’s plan doesn’t.

The question neither county asked is whether racial percentages are still needed. The answer is yes. Vocational programs at schools still tend to be filled with minorities, while programs geared towards accelerated academics are predominantly white. Hillsborough County should use racial percentages when assigning students to schools, or the county’s schools will soon look similar to those of 50 years ago: minorities at one, whites at another.

This issue should be considered when developing the school choice plan. The county officials need to make sure the schools’ specialized programs don’t mainly attract one group.