In its ongoing Failure Factories series, the Tampa Bay Times is investigating the disastrous effects of the Pinellas County School Board’s 2007 decision to abandon school integration in favor of “neighborhood schools.” Schools in high-poverty black communities were promised additional funding and resources. Then the promises weren’t met, and performance at the schools has plummeted.
On this week’s podcast, the Times’ Michael LaForgia and Adam Playford talk with ProPublica editor Eric Umansky about what happened, what led the paper to investigate, and why re-integrating the schools isn’t really on the table.
Highlights from the conversation:
Why U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the decline of Pinellas County schools a “man-made disaster”
LaForgia: We looked at Census data and state testing data that showed that black neighborhoods here are no more poor, no more populated by single parent homes, no more crime-ridden. They produce children who are coming to school no less ready than kids in scores of other high-poverty African-American neighborhoods across the state. But it’s only after a few years in our [segregated] school system that they really began to struggle.
Why the reporters hadn’t known about the school board’s decision…
LaForgia: The story didn’t begin as a story about resegregation. And it’s probably to our chagrin. We didn’t have enough people with institutional knowledge on our team to even know that the decision had been made in 2007. The longest serving member of our team –which included education reporters Cara Fitzpatrick and Lisa Gartner – started at the paper in 2012. What we did know was the testing numbers showed a precipitous drop around 2009 and 2010. We hypothesized that something must have gone on during that period of time. It’s embarrassing even talking about it because all we needed was a reporter in the room who knew about the history of the school system.
… and how they’ve talked about whether lack of diversity in the newsroom played a part
LaForgia: Our newsroom like others could be more diverse. Whether that would have led us in a straighter line to the story, I’m not sure. I think it would have helped if we had a black reporter who had been in this county and covering these issues for 10 or 15 years. But I would have settled for any reporter who been in this county covering the issues.
How stark data led the paper to focus on the issue of re-segregation
Playford: You rarely see in a database this clustering of five schools in the bottom 15 in the state. When we looked at that, we didn’t find that pattern anywhere else we looked. It’s not that these are the five poorest schools in the state; it’s not that this is the poorest area in the state. …It was a unique thing that we couldn’t find an explanation for, except for this policy the district had made.
Pushback received over the series title, "Failure Factories"
LaForgia: There were definitely some people who took exception to it, and that’s completely understandable. They chose to interpret it as us labeling the children who were coming out of these schools as failures. But the reason we chose the title was not to stigmatize anybody or to draw attention to children who were failing. We wanted to make it clear that this was a phenomenon that was not happening anywhere else, that this was a really big deal, and that this was a serious problem. We decided to use a title that we felt made that statement and was going to get people’s attention. And I think that we succeeded in that.
Why, despite what the data shows about resegregation, there’s little talk about returning to integrated schools, even from the African-American community
LaForgia: The African-American community’s relationship with busing has been a complicated one. Like in many places, the burden of busing here fell predominantly on black kids. You had kids waiting out in the dark, before the sun came up, so that they could be bused 30 to 45 minutes away and then have to do the return trip. I think [the school board] could come up with something that would go down easily in the black community if they kept the kids here locally, but there’s no immediate easy answer that anyone has in mind right now.