Judge: Unit 4 needs to work on improving racial equality

Judge: Unit 4 needs to work on improving racial equality

By Matt Spartz

No matter how much the Champaign Unit 4 School Board thought it was doing to combat racial inequalities in its schools, U.S. District Court Judge Joe Billy McDade ruled in Thursday’s consent decree hearing that the school board needed to do more by working closely with the plaintiffs in order to come up with a more concise plan to meet the 2009 deadline.

From his opening comments, Judge McDade made it clear that he felt the school board’s conclusions were hard to follow. He explained that the district’s plans to combat the racial discrepancies in the school system were not aggressive enough to meet the consent decree deadline.

“The main elements lacking from the districts brief is transparency and specificity,” McDade said. “Although the brief provides a decent summary, it lacks the specific (steps) to address the remaining challenges.”

But Judge McDade did not place all of the burden onto the school district.

“In order for the consent decree to bear fruit, the African-American parents must allow themselves to trust their kids to the schools,” he said.

In 1996, local activist John Lee Johnson challenged the district’s busing practices. He said that the district was busing the black children further than the white, making them bear the brunt of desegregation. By 2002, his challenge evolved into the consent decree, a set of policies that the district and the plaintiffs, led by Johnson, who died earlier this year, agreed upon in order to enforce equality.

The Champaign school board presented a plethora of statistics backing its claim that the steps they are undertaking are working towards fulfilling the goals set forth by the consent decree.

Sally Scott, lead council for the Champaign school district, showed in a presentation how third-grade Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores are up by 40 percent and eighth grade scores by more than 50 percent. These were used as examples to show how the school district is closing the education achievement gap between black and white children.

However, this achievement has not permeated throughout all levels of the school system, the plantiffs pointed out. They said high school students have shown much less progress in terms of closing the gap.

Margie Skirvin, school board president, said that high school students were not able to get the benefits of the recent reforms.

“(Change) takes a while to work it’s way through,” Skirvin said. “We have kids in high school who haven’t had all the advantages that our elementary kids are getting now.”

But the plaintiffs took issue with some of the school board’s statistics. The district showed that there is a much higher enrollment of African-American students in advanced classes today then there was at the beginning of the decree. However, the plaintiffs claimed that these students were not doing well and were only in these classes so they could be reflected in the statistical data.

The plaintiffs said the district has not moved fast enough with their reforms in order to meet the deadline.

“(The school board) gave us the old things we are used to seeing and nothing fresh that’s aimed at really making the changes we need by 2009,” said Carol Ashley, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Many African-American community members addressed concerns about the lasting effects of the programs and initiatives that are being taken.

“We’re concerned about the consent decree ending in 2009,” said Tracy Parsons, president of the Urban League of Champaign County. “I don’t believe we have enough safeguards in place to make sure that by the time this thing ends, we’re able to keep as policy those things that we’ve had to change and worked very hard to change.”