Bogie, Bradley and Busing
The Story of Pinellas County School Integration: A nine-part series exclusive to the Gabber
By James A. Schnur
Part 9: A New Reality in a New Millennium
Court decisions from the 1950s through 1970s required Pinellas County to desegregate its public schools. Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court considered buses appropriate vehicles for meeting this mandate. During the last three decades, the legal requirements have relaxed as student bodies in many Florida districts have started to resegregate.
Unitary Status and New Trends in Diversity
The original goal of school desegregation was to achieve “unitary status.” This meant a district had successfully removed earlier vestiges of unequal practices and separate facilities that discriminated against minorities. When the federal court approved the Bradley decree in 1971, the expectation was that once Pinellas attained unitary status, it would continue to maintain that standard.
A January 1991 U.S. Supreme Court decision changed the landscape. In Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, Justices permitted courts to end oversight once systems met the unitary test. This happened at a time when a growing number of lower courts granted such status. Instead of staying atop the mountain, Dowell permitted districts to lower themselves by reverting to earlier segregation practices.
Since the 1990s, many Florida school districts have backslid. This happened at the same time politicians started to add high-stakes testing while also diverting more public funds to private charter schools that did not have to comply with the same accountability standards.
The U.S. District Court in Tampa granted Pinellas County “unitary status” on August 16, 2000. By this action, federal supervision under the Bradley decision came to an end as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund agreed that the district had acted in good faith to dismantle dual schools. In dismissing this case, however, the court left the door open to revisit conditions if evidence of inequalities ever reappeared.
In addition to new testing and accountability measures, Florida’s changing demography over the last half century means desegregation is no longer a “Black-and-white” dichotomy. In 1970, approximately 80% of the students in Florida’s public K-12 schools were white; today, that number hovers around 40%. Though the proportion of Black students remains generally constant, the percentage of Hispanic students has soared.
Mandates from yesteryear no longer make sense. The first attempt to integrate a Florida public K-12 school happened in Miami in 1959. At that time, Hispanics comprised fewer than 8% of Miami-Dade County’s population. Castro had not taken power in Cuba, and no boatlifts of Cuban refugees had yet reached Florida’s shores. By comparison, Asians and non-Hispanic whites make up only 9% of the K-12 enrollment in that district today. Applying 1959 standards 62 years later is impossible.
A 2017 report issued by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University points to a new disturbing trend. In “Patterns of Resegregation in Florida’s Schools,” researchers illustrate how separate-and-unequal practices now isolate groups not just by race, but by income.
In 1994, Pinellas public schools had 99,558 students. At that time, 30% of the students in this county came from low-income homes. In 2014, the district had 99,760 students. However, the number of students in Pinellas schools who lived in low-income homes, regardless of race, rose to 43.1%.
A look across Tampa Bay shows even greater discrepancies. In 1994 in Hillsborough County 41.8% of the district’s pupils came from low-income homes. By 2014, the percentage of Hillsborough’s students from low-income homes had risen to 60.4%.
“Demographics is destiny” is a common phrase heard in some circles. The trends shown here indicate that yesterday’s solutions may not solve tomorrow’s problems or serve the needs of the next generation of scholars. Inadequate income, as well as institutional racism, may impoverish the educational experience for some children.
COQEBS Takes the Lead in Bridging the Gap
The Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students (COQEBS) has replaced the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as the primary plaintiff to make sure that Pinellas public schools never revert to dual schools.
Dr. Ricardo A. Davis, president of COQEBS, has emphasized the importance of the school district sharing assessments and progress with this organization. In a July 2, 2020 article in The Weekly Challenger, he noted that COQEBS looks at data in six areas: student achievement, student discipline, advanced coursework, minority hiring, rates of graduation and characteristics of those involved with Exceptional Student Education.
COQEBS carefully reviews what the district submits, not just to see what is reported, but also to question what seems to be missing. For example, county data mentions that more Black and Hispanic students have enrolled in advanced courses, but fails to state if students enrolling in those courses demonstrate high levels of proficiency. Did those who walked through the door succeed at what was necessary to achieve and climb to the next level?
Pirate Pride Perseveres
Boca Ciega High School thrives today. Those familiar with the original buildings that opened in 1953 may not recognize the rebuilt campus that appeared a decade ago. Unlike 60 years ago, the new buildings have air-conditioning. Unlike 40 years ago, the air conditioners in the existing buildings actually work.
James A. Schnur graduated from Boca Ciega High as a member of the inaugural class that experienced Pinellas school desegregation from first through twelfth grades. To comply with court-ordered busing, he rode the bus for four of those years. He’s written five books about Pinellas communities and has also lectured and published about Florida and Florida education history.