Desegregation debate: Beyond black and white
By MARILYN BROWN/ of The Tampa Tribune

Originally published Feb. 10, 2000

TAMPA – As a public advisory panel convenes today, some say it should consider Hispanics in the school desegregation debate.

School desegregation in Hillsborough County shouldn’t be just a black and white issue, some say.

At 13 Hillsborough schools, Hispanic students now outnumber whites and blacks combined, school district records show. And their growing presence, paralleled nationally, creates a new challenge for ensuring educational diversity.

Hillsborough school officials hope nearly 100 community leaders slated to meet this afternoon as a desegregation advisory panel are ready for that challenge.

“We know we want schools to be representative of the population of Hillsborough County,” said Donnie Evans, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction. “The question is, “What does that mean?’ ”

Evans is leading the district effort to devise a new desegregation plan that could remove Hillsborough from federal supervision under a 1971 court order.

Hispanics were not considered a factor when the order decreed students would be classified either black or white. They shouldn’t be a legal issue now, according to the district’s attorney in its long desegregation case with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“We don’t have any history of ever having segregated a school for the Hispanic population. Segregation means something was done with intent,” said lawyer Tom Gonzalez.

Gary Orfield, who leads The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, disagreed.

“Attorneys always say stuff like that. Their job is to minimize what the school system has to do,” Orfield said.

“It does matter. Latinos are more segregated in our society than African-Americans.”

Orfield led a study in June of resegregation in public schools nationwide that found Hispanic student enrollment increased by 218 percent since 1968. Black enrollment rose 22 percent during that time, while white enrollment decreased by 16 percent.

“We’ve got communities whose rights may very well be eliminated before they’re even recognized,” Orfield said.

Hillsborough’s 1971 order concluded the district should try to make each school reflect the racial balance of the county, which then was about 80 percent white and 20 percent black. But while some schools still come close to that figure, ethnic enrollment makes ratios deceiving.

Among the 50 schools considered “racially identifiable” by the district because of their black/ white imbalances, five have Hispanic majorities that are counted as white.

It’s unknown whether U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, who now presides over the longstanding court case, even will consider how Hispanics skew the figures.

In October 1998, the judge said the district was not ready to be released from court supervision because vestiges of discrimination remained. But she also encouraged a look at the Hispanic student population, estimated at 14 percent in 1990, and asked for updated figures.

Today the figures show Hispanics at nearly 20 percent, close to the black student population of less than 24 percent.

Those numbers have not been lost on a school district committee that will work with the larger community group meeting today. The smaller committee is preparing what it hopes will be a plan approved by the school board for presentation to Kovachevich.

The committee agreed last week that ethnic diversity should be a part of the new plan and that it wants to “”look beyond the black/white issue.”

“Hillsborough County needs to be aware that it is growing in diversity,” said Maria Pinzon, a committee member who directs the Hispanic Services Council.

The committee’s first draft will be presented to the community panel at 2 p.m. in Jefferson High School, 4401 Cypress St.

Participants will be asked to return forms with feedback to the district.

The larger group is scheduled to meet again March 30, with public forums planned after school board consideration now scheduled for June.

Marilyn Brown can be reached at (813) 259-8069.