A "Momentous" Decision

Judge Bernice Donald says county schools should not be racially identifiable.



The most powerful force in the universe is not gravity, earthquakes, or tsunamis. It is American parents bent on getting their children into the school of their choice.

This force — abetted in Greater Memphis by cars and roads, separate city and county school systems, private schools, and the proximity of Mississippi schools — is the reason why the latest federal court desegregation order on Shelby County schools is doomed to fail.

To paraphrase a famous quotation, U.S. district judge Bernice Donald has made her ruling. Now let's see her make it stick.

At least Donald acknowledged the elephant in the living room: The new Southwind High School between Germantown and Collierville will be, if not this year then next year or the year after that, a virtually all-black high school. As her ruling says, it is expected to have an 88 percent or higher black enrollment on the day it opens this month.

Overall, the Shelby County school system is 34 percent black. There is some nuance and a lot of historical context in Donald's 62-page order, but the gist of it is that racially identifiable schools are a no-no in the system, and individual schools should more closely mirror the system demographics, plus or minus 15 percent, in both their student body and their faculty.

Courts can rule all they want about public schools, and for a year or two they can dictate the demographics of schools. But parents and politicians are free agents. The people's court is going to challenge and eventually overrule the federal court. This is especially true in Memphis when a suburban school starts out as a county school and becomes a city school via annexation. In 1980, Shelby County built Kirby High School. It was majority white. Memphis took it over in 2000. Last year, it was 1 percent white. In 2000, Memphis and Shelby County jointly opened Cordova High School, which is now a city school. Its white enrollment declined to 41 percent in 2006-'07, from 60 percent in 2004-'05.

Southwind High School is in the Memphis reserve area. Memphis School Board members approved the site and will eventually take it over. Last year, the Memphis City Council and the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development did everything but pull the trigger on the so-called southeast annexation. It failed mainly because council members Tom Marshall and Dedrick Brittenum recused themselves.

Marshall was the architect of the annexation plan. He is still on the council until the end of this year. He is also chairman. He told the Flyer this week he expects the council to take up annexation after the October election. If and when it does, he says this time he will vote for it.

If Memphis annexes Southwind High and selective (i.e., not-gated) nearby neighborhoods — even if it delays the effective date for a few years — then the county school system has to recalculate its racial math. Hundreds of black students and a sprinkling of white students will shift from the county system to the city system.

History suggests that the harder Donald pushes to eliminate racially identifiable schools, the more "churn" she will produce from the people's court. In 1971, another Memphis federal judge ordered forced busing to desegregate schools. Within three years, nearly 30,000 white students left the system and Memphis had the largest private-school population in the country. Today, more than 95 percent of the 115,000 MCS students attend racially identifiable schools because there are fewer than 9,000 whites in the system.

In her ruling, Donald said the county school district "does not yet merit a passing grade," and she called the school board's compliance track record "decidedly mixed."

In some ways, her historical analysis is generous. She could have pointed out (but did not) that the county board, with no district seats, was all-white until a couple of years ago and that its former superintendent allowed a single real estate developer, Jackie Welch, to pick most of the school sites. In other respects, however, her ruling is naive. It ignores the reality of school choice broadly defined to include magnet schools, separate city and county school systems, private schools, and DeSoto County schools. In the long run, there is nothing that Donald or any federal judge can do to eliminate racially identifiable schools.

The ruling overlooks something else. The Shelby County schools have grown from black flight as well as white flight. In 1987, the system was only 14 percent black compared to 34 percent today. The neighborhoods in the southeast annexation area are primarily middle class. Residents include former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout.

Southwind High School is mentioned only once in the ruling, so it's impossible to say how much it weighed on Donald's decision. Appointed by Bill Clinton in 1996, she is the lone black judge on the federal bench in Memphis. Like her judicial colleagues, Donald, a native of DeSoto County and graduate of the University of Memphis, does not grant interviews about pending matters and lets her rulings speak for themselves. What can be said, however, is that Southwind High is a far cry from the dilapidated schools with no air-conditioning and third-hand textbooks of the 1960s and '70s — a period the ruling describes in great detail, for whatever reason.

Most parents will probably skip the history, arithmetic, and the 62 pages and get to the bottom line: What does it mean for my house, my neighborhood, or my kid?

Donald's order calls for a special master — a "neutral expert" in desegregation issues — to be picked within 30 days. The county school board is supposed to achieve full compliance, as determined by Donald and the special master, by 2012. Apparently, Southwind High School will be allowed to open this month as a "racially identifiable"county school that doesn't meet the county guidelines. After this year, it's anyone's guess.

With positive leadership and a focus on excellence instead of race, Southwind High has a chance to be a very good school. Instead, sadly, it has already been called a dumping ground by one neighborhood leader.

Donald writes about "the momentous, irreversible nature of this court's pending decision." But it could be momentous in a different way than she thinks.

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