Tuscaloosa spin

Liam Julian

It's no small thing to ascribe racist motivations to public officials. New York Times reporter Sam Dillon, generally a model of careful education journalism, came close to doing just that in a front-page story on the rezoning of students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Dillon's first sentence: "After white parents in this racially mixed city complained about school overcrowding, school authorities set out to draw up a sweeping rezoning plan." He continues in this vein, focusing on race, even noting (in case you forgot) that George Wallace once stood in Tuscaloosa, in a University of Alabama doorway, to stop the college from integrating.

Controversial, sexy leads and images of a racist South are proven ways to transform news into front-page material. But they're lousy ways to tell a complicated story such as this one.

The tale of Tuscaloosa's school reassignment is not about race; it's actually rather mundane and managerial. In fact, the most unusual thing about it is the involvement of a proactive, reform-minded school board. Leaders of the 10,000-student district sought ways to make more efficient use of their facilities and buses. The result was a school restructuring plan that offers parents choices, creates a new magnet program, turns some primary schools into k-8 campuses, and rezones several hundred students.

No evidence indicates that district officials acted with anything but good intentions. To insinuate otherwise is irresponsible.

Dillon's article makes two main points. First, that the school board is actively resegregating Tuscaloosa's schools. Tuscaloosa's schools are undeniably racially monolithic, but that has less to do with their zoning than with the fact that white families have, over the past forty years, left them in droves. (Seventy-five percent of the district's students are black.)

That the district is attempting to lure white, middle class families back--by offering a new magnet program, for example, and by improving school quality overall--is actually the best hope for integrated classrooms in Tuscaloosa.

Dillon's second point is that some rezoned students were moved out of good schools and into schools in need of improvement. This is a valid criticism, but one that deserves more careful scrutiny. The Tuscaloosa district is divided into three school clusters, each with its own high school. Schools in the north and east are overcrowded and serve a less-black, more-affluent student population than those in the west (although the northern high school is still majority black). On average, a school in the northern cluster enrolls twice as many students as one in the western cluster.

After parents complained about overcrowding in northern and eastern classrooms, the school board commissioned a demographic study and eventually adopted its recommendations, which are projected to save the district millions in construction and transportation costs while easing overcrowding now and later. To implement this wholly-defensible plan, several hundred students were rezoned. Almost all of them were black, and a significant number were moved from eastern and northern classrooms into the western cluster, where almost all schools are in "improvement" status under No Child Left Behind.

But Tuscaloosa's worst schools have actually been making steady improvement, in no small part because of the school board's efforts, which included closing down a chronic low performer and using the building to house a regional site of the West Alabama Mathematics, Science, and Technology Coalition (which helps train teachers). In 2006, the board also fired two principals who weren't doing an adequate job of leading their western cluster schools.

Both moves stem from a data-driven, race-blind, western-cluster restructuring plan put forth by the school board in 2004 (it's available here). While other districts would rather find loopholes in NCLB, Tuscaloosa devised a vigorous restructuring plan for its worst-performing schools, solicited community feedback, and commendably acknowledged that "we have not achieved the results we desire." Such efforts deserve praise.

And the city's schools are improving--even those in the western cluster. Seven schools made AYP in math in 2005, for example; 17 hit the mark in 2006. Of the several city schools in improvement status, all achieved over 85 percent of their AYP goals in 2007, and the district has resolved to focus extra effort on the few goals not being met.

Plus, the portion of rezoned students who find themselves in schools not meeting AYP have the option, under NCLB, to transfer to Tuscaloosa's best schools--schools which could accommodate all of them and still be less crowded than they were before--and the district must provide transportation, too.

Did the school board seek to assuage the concerns of middle-class, white parents? Perhaps. And several questions remain about how certain zoning boundaries were constructed; the school board should be specific in answering them.

But the restructuring plan is likely to improve the school district overall. It has significant support, too, including from the Tuscaloosa News, which wrote an editorial encouraging the plan's adoption.

This is the real story of Tuscaloosa's schools. It isn't as stirring as recollections of George Wallace and racist superintendents, and it won't garner front page coverage. But it does have greater veracity on its side.