Broad Logic: Moral malpractice

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 11:45pm

I know Metro school board chairman David Fox. I’ve eaten at his dinner table and played with his kids. I would no more try to cover him as an unbiased journalist than challenge Councilwoman Emily Evans to a debate about bond markets or Adam Dread to a knock-knock-joke contest. That’s why this is commentary and not reportage.

That disclosed, relationship or no relationship, it seems to me that Fox and other backers of the Metro school board’s controversial rezoning plan being challenged in federal court may well deserve some defending.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys are arguing that the plan, which ended the mandatory busing of black children from north Nashville to the Hillwood cluster this school year, isolates African-American students and condemns them to an inadequate education (see “Racism, he wrote” on page 9). As such, they want U.S. District Judge John Nixon to order that the entire thing be scrapped.

It’s reasonable enough to attest that concentrating poor, black kids together in schools rather than routing them to both inner city and suburban ones is discriminatory. The stunning success of local charter schools with predominantly black enrollment notwithstanding, there are myriad education experts who say that students in schools with cross-sections of socioeconomic and racial profiles learn and perform better. Moreover, to minister earnestly about social fairness, which many of the opponents of the school board’s plan are doing, is noble in and of itself.

But the methods being used to advance the case against the school board have at times seemed unfair and morally bankrupt. That’s not to say that the rezoning plan’s manifestations are perfect and shouldn’t be challenged.

But to help win the legal argument, the NAACP-supported plaintiffs’ attorneys essentially have branded the rezoning plan’s backers — most specifically and certainly most pointedly, Fox — as racists.

Among other wholly implausible charges, the father-and-son legal team of Larry and Allen Woods — who began calling witnesses in the case last week — has accused Fox both in this newspaper and in legal documents of saying that “African-Americans cannot learn.” They claim, in fact, that the Board of Education chairman, who has categorically denied saying that and is expected to be among those called to the stand sometime this week, has said that “more than once.”

Further, they have tried repeatedly to impugn the integrity of rezoning backers by denouncing them as people who “openly” advocate resegregation. They have perverted comments championing the virtues of neighborhood schools by suggesting that rezoning supporters only want to keep black students contained and out of Metro’s suburban education centers.

“Chairman Fox clearly said that was the intent of the plan, to put African-American students back in north Nashville where they live,” Allen Woods recently told The City Paper in a story advancing the federal court proceedings.

There may be thoughtful arguments against the new policy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there was racist intent in its development. (Though don’t tell that to banished Metro schools superintendent Pedro Garcia, whose memo to the contrary is a key piece of evidence for the plaintiffs.)

The notion kids should be able to attend schools in their own neighborhoods — the judgment of a diverse community task force that developed the plan — is not a new or inherently evil policy. The fact Nashville still has neighborhoods that are racially and economically divided is a broader indictment of our community, a fact for which the school board should not necessarily be scapegoated. Metro has had some majority African-American schools for years. No one cried racism as long as they were comprised of middle-class kids.

Isn’t it possible that then-school board head Marsha Warden, Fox and others who voted for the new system were altogether convinced that kids and parents would be better served in schools in their neighborhoods? And that the constituents of public education should be given the choice to attend schools closer to home where parents could more easily be involved in their education?

As one black task force member says, “How is that racist?”

Perhaps it’s solid legal strategy to challenge the rectitude of community leaders who have never before given cause to voters or constituents that their motives were impure. And it’s always possible that the witnesses the lawyers promise to bring forward to confirm these supposedly racist utterances will prove credible. But it’s more likely that ascribing racist motives to people whose intentions could be reasonably wholesome is simply better courtroom theater.

7 Comments on this post:

By: artsmart on 11/9/09 at 6:29

Ms. Garrigan:

Unfortunately my opinion of Mr. Fox is very different. We had a very serious issue with which he could have been very helpful. Sitting in our seat the only interest he had was hiding and ignoring the issue all together. The Board's job is to see to it that the School System is following the law and doing the right thing.
Mr. Fox had absolutely no interest in anything but his own little career and protecting Metro Schools. Violation of State and Federal Law meant nothing to him. If somehow this lawsuit brings real leadership that would be great. I am for neighborhood schools however.

By: Funditto on 11/9/09 at 6:56

I've had problems in my district (Fox's) and have been ignored. No return call, no email. Zip. I won't be voting for him in any office.

By: idgaf on 11/9/09 at 7:55

(IMO) Busing kids out of their neighborhood contributes to a breakdown in society eliminating or serious hindering the process of making life long friends for those that need them and positive influences the most.

Just one involded parent or family can have influenc far beyond their own family. The calm in the middle of the storm so to speak. A place of sactuary and/or escape.

A positive/alternative example from what they know.

By: dogmrb on 11/9/09 at 10:36

"Perhaps it’s solid legal strategy to challenge the rectitude of community leaders who have never before given cause to voters or constituents that their motives were impure." The phrase "never before given cause" has been your experience as a close, personal friend but possibly it has not been everyone's!

By: Marymeet on 11/9/09 at 11:14

Ms. Garrigan, you said "...The stunning success of local charter schools with predominantly black enrollment notwithstanding..."

Shouldn't that BE the point? I think the better question would be what are the charters doing that Metro isn't? If all schools were so stunningly successful would parents who care be suing to move their children to a school that they perceive is better?

I like neighborhood schools and they could certainly be useful in allowing for late buses for after school programs like sports, clubs and tutoring at an affordable cost. It also just might encourage parents to be more involved.

By: dogmrb on 11/9/09 at 1:48

KIPP is an excellent school but what percentage of the kids that start in the 5th grade are with their cohorts in the 8th grade? And what is the "stunning" success of all the local charter schools? I like the idea of charter schools as examples of how intense focus and talented teachers can help underprivileged students but please tell me more. BTW: charter schools are not neighborhood schools per se and children are bussed to school.

By: NashMom on 11/9/09 at 11:57

1. There has been NO stunning success in Nashville's Charter schools. Their success varies as greatly as individual public schools and thus is a poor comparison.
2. I think that David Fox has provided solid leadership in a very difficult situation and anyone who knows him finds the accusations of racism laughable.
3. The long history of racism and disparities across our society has created the segregated neighborhoods that we now call home. The public school system cannot be expected to cure all social ills related to this. Neighborhoods-based schools have many advantages for children and their families; Improved access and increased opportunity for engagement being just two of them, both of which have been shown to have a positive impact on academic performance.

Shame on the Woods attorneys for just furthering the divide and misrepresenting the truth!