School board members are defending their new student assignment plan in federal court, denying their goal was to rid Hillwood’s schools of black children from north Nashville’s housing projects.
Instead, they say they wanted to give north Nashville’s parents a choice between putting their children on buses to Hillwood or putting them in schools closer to home.
“The facet of the plan that I liked is that it provided choice,” school board chairman David Fox testified Thursday. “I liked the fact that they had a choice either way. I think having a choice is better than not having a choice.”
Fox and school board member Mark North have taken the witness stand this week in the NAACP-backed lawsuit accusing Metro of discriminating against black children by ending cross-town busing. The lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge John Nixon to order the school board to develop a new plan that’s acceptable to both sides. The hearing is expected to last through next week.
To help make up his mind about rezoning, North testified he rode a school bus 45 minutes with north Nashville’s children on their way home one day. He described one girl, who helped him find a seat on the bus, as "the sweetest child I ever saw" and said he read aloud to the students from their library books during the ride.
“This was an important event for me."
He said he learned the bus ride “wasn’t torture. It wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened.” And he said, “I was convinced that for some of the children on that bus, it was a good thing" to attend school in the white suburbs. "And I was also convinced that I wasn’t sure it was best for some children. And there was also probably no way for me to tell which was which. It raised questions for me.”
He said he later became convinced the way to handle the issue was to allow parents to choose which schools their children will attend.
Of the 1,526 north Nashville students zoned last year for Hillwood’s schools, 1,094 have chosen to go to schools closer to home, according to the school district. The district is providing transportation to students who choose Hillwood’s schools.
But experts have testified the rezoning plan has isolated hundreds more children by race and socioeconomic status and contradicted decades of social science on how to teach poor urban kids. These witnesses cited 40 years of studies, including research in Nashville by Vanderbilt University’s Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, showing that students learn less in schools where poverty is concentrated.
Fox and North acknowledged they knew about this research, and neither could cite any studies supporting their own opinions that schools filled with children from impoverished neighborhoods can succeed.
Under questioning by civil rights attorney Larry Woods, North said he met for an hour with Smrekar and Goldring when he was chairing the task force that recommended the rezoning plan to the school board.
"We discussed their findings but they never said schools in poor communities are going to fail," he testified.
Woods: "What did they say?"
North: "They said it is difficult to overcome extreme poverty."
Woods: "And what was your response to them on that subject?"
North: "We talked about the choice. We talked about how busing wasn’t working for everyone, and we talked about focusing on educating each student."
North contended one of his task force's goals was "to maintain and promote diversity" in schools with the rezoning. But Woods pointed out that hundreds more African-American children were zoned for Pearl-Cohn's already heavily black schools.
Woods: "Did anybody on the task force say, when you’re talking about Pearl-Cohn, [it] looks like we’re getting ready to decrease diversity rather than increase it, or words to that effect?"
North: "I think all of those discussions were candid. I don’t remember those words specifically, but yeah, we looked at the impact, um, closely."
Woods: "So this wasn’t happenstance with what happened with Pearl-Cohn? It was discussed out loud by the task force."
North: "I think we discussed the impact on diversity, yes sir."