Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

TOP STORY >> Court oversight should end, say experts in court

Leader senior staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District is unitary—or desegregated—for purposes of discipline, student enrollment and teacher assignment, more so than most districts that have been declared unitary and more than most districts in the United States, experts testified Monday and Tuesday before District Judge Brian S. Miller.

While simple numbers show that blacks are more likely to be disciplined than whites, economic status and not race is the determining factor in all areas of achievement and discipline nationwide, Christine Rossell testified Tuesday. Rossell, a Boston University professor who is a statistician and a social scientist, said that explains why black students are suspended disproportionately.

Tuesday was the second day of testimony in a PCSSD desegregation hearing that could last three weeks, according to John Walker, lead attorney for the Joshua Intervenors, who oppose a finding of unitary status in the decades-old desegregation case.

PCSSD and its attorney, Sam Jones, opened the hearing Monday with David Armor, Rossell’s colleague and co-author, who testified that the district was unitary for racial balance regarding student enrollment and teacher assignment.

Armor uses a standard of plus or minus 15 percent to evaluate teacher assignment by race compared to the census data, and plus or minus 20 percent for student assignment at a school.

Armor said his standards had passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court in at least one previous case.

He said absolute racial balance in all schools is “virtually impossible to ever hope to achieve.”

“In my opinion, the PCSSD has adopted and implemented a desegregation plan that has been effective in meeting the requirements of unitary status that courts have established in the areas of student and staff assignment,” according to Armor, a George Mason University professor of public policy.

Virtually all PCSSD schools except Harris Elementary and Bayou Meto Elementary, which is exempt as a geographically isolated school, meet Armor’s standard.

“The only feasible way to desegregate Harris is to close it,” Armor said.

Both Rossell and Armor were paid by the state to study those areas, write reports and testify.

The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts and PCSSD have been intertwined for about 30 years in the complicated and expensive “solution” to school segregation in Pulaski County.

The Little Rock School District has been declared unitary. Miller heard the North Little Rock School District petition for unitary status in February and the PCSSD hearing started Monday.

Miller has said he won’t make a ruling in either case until he has reviewed the transcripts.

Some Jacksonville residents believe a declaration of unitary status for PCSSD would bring Jacksonville a step closer to having its own school district.

“The Pulaski County Special School District has eliminated vestiges of racism…discipline is not meted out on the bases of race and it meets the conditions of unitary for discipline,” Rossell said.

Hired by the state, she conducted a study that concluded:

The racial disparity in suspensions is almost entirely caused by differences in the rates of poverty between the races—a factor outside the control of the district;

There is no evidence of racial discrimination on the part of white administrators;

Racial disparities are less than most districts that have attained unitary status and

PCSSD has complied with the discipline requirements of its court orders to the extent practicable and should be declared unitary in that area.

She praised the PCSSD’s student handbooks as “probably the most detailed…I’ve seen.”

Using the qualifications for the free school-lunch program as a definition of poverty, Rossell said the qualifying for a free lunch is the greatest predictor of whether or not a student is likely to be a discipline problem—based on suspensions.

Although the district has more white students than black, a higher percentage of black students qualify for the free lunches.

The district has done an extraordinary job in creating a clear and fair district-wide discipline management plan, she said.

“We will see the disparity disappear when poverty disappears,” she said.

“Students spend (only) 9 percent of their time in school by the time they are 18,” she said, adding there wasn’t much a district could do to counter the bad effects of poverty at home on discipline and achievement.

Rossell drew laughter from the Joshua and Knight Intervenors when she said of racial discrimination, “If you do the proper statistical analysis, you can almost make it disappear.”

Questioned by the judge, who asked a lot of questions and has exhibited curiosity and humor throughout the first two days of the hearing, she said that racial prejudice still exists, but that actual discrimination on the basis of race is rare because it is socially and legally unacceptable. She said that when it appears that banks are discriminating against blacks in making loans, if you factored in all the data—such as financial history, job history, credit scores—than the racial disparity disappears and that it’s poverty and not race that’s the critical factor.

Robert Pressman, an attorney for the Joshua Intervenors, spent about two hours attacking Rossell’s credibility and challenging her methods and motivation.

He quoted a judge in one case as saying, “Dr. Rossell’s credibility was not credible.”

Under redirect examination by Jones, the PCSSD attorney, Rossell said she had generally favorable reviews by the judges in the cases she testified in, and that she had been told she knew desegregation law better than many desegregation lawyers.

Pressman noted that Rossell used free lunches as the poverty standard, while she previously used free and reduced lunches combined in her analysis.

Rossell said students could come from lower-middle-class and middle-class homes and still qualify for reduced lunches, meaning it wasn’t a good indicator of poverty.

Pressman asked if she didn’t always find districts to meet unitary standards when they were her employers. She said she often found districts to not meet unitary standards in some areas and then advised them not to apply for unitary status until they had met those standards.

Pressman also asked her whether or not she had considered the terms of the Plan 2000 desegregation agreement.

She agreed that she hadn’t studied whether or not various guidelines were met for erasing the disparity in discipline because it’s attributable to poverty and at a very reasonable level.

Also Monday, Laura Shirley, director of the gifted and talented and advanced placement program, said partially in order to eliminate the disparity between percentages and numbers of blacks and whites in those classes, they had been thrown open to all students who wanted to take them.

“We meet the standard and we’re compliant,” Shirley said.

She was cross-examined by Walker, who asked, “You have a recruitment strategy to increase black participation. Have you found that a number of black students start out in AP classes, then drop out?”

“That happens,” said Shirley.

“Have you assisted (school) principals to work to get more AP blacks?” Walker asked her, referring to a provision in the Plan 2000 desegregation agreement.

She said she had done so.