Around this time every year, I find myself in the strange circumstance of writing a column before Ash Wednesday that won’t appear until after Easter Sunday. If the overarching theme of my column were something other than Rockford as a microcosm of America, this situation might not seem so odd. Every year, however, I’m haunted by the thought that Rockford is stuck in a perpetual Lent—moving always toward some glorious resolution that will change the shape of life here, but never quite arriving.
Take, for instance, the Rockford school-desegregation lawsuit, on which more than a few words have been spilled in these pages, starting with Tom Fleming’s classic February 1997 Perspective, “Here Come the Judge.” Five years ago, those of us who had fought to end federal judicial tyranny over Rockford School District 205 could see the light at the end of the tunnel. After 13 years and a third of a billion dollars in wasted property taxes, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered federal control to end on June 30, 2002.
And it did. But not much really changed. Today, the school district’s property-tax levy is as high as it was before the lawsuit ended; its budget is higher; and, in these days of high gas prices and immoral wars for control of foreign oil, hundreds of buses still crisscross the city every morning and afternoon, breaking up families and neighborhoods and taking children of all ages far from their homes.
Before June 30, 2002, the busing program was known as Controlled Choice; now that it is no longer being ordered by a federal court but imposed willingly by the school district, it is called Choice Advantage. At least Controlled Choice was a more honest, less Orwellian term.
Once again, however, the people that have walked in darkness have seen a great light. This fall, Controlled, er, Choice Advantage will come to an end, and the district will assign students to schools based on “attendance zones”—in other words, based on where they live.
That doesn’t mean that busing will come to an end. After months of drawing and redrawing, the attendance zones are as gerrymandered as a Massachusetts congressional district. The liberal solution of racial quotas has been replaced by the neoconservative one of socioeconomic balance—which, in practical terms, is simply a way of recategorizing poor whites as minorities so that the school district can obscure the fact that it’s still engaged in social engineering.
Set aside the problem of getting a child from his home in the head of the salamander to his assigned school in the tail. Even if the zones were entirely based on natural boundaries and obvious physical divisions in the district, busing wouldn’t go away. District 205 sprawls over 170 square miles, yet there are only six attendance zones for middle school, which puts their average size over 28 square miles—clearly not a reasonable distance for a child to walk to school. For high school, there are only four—an average size of 42.5 square miles. The entire city of Milwaukee takes up 45 square miles.
So the answer is obvious, right? The school district should simply increase the number of attendance zones (which would, incidentally, require abandoning the socioeconomic factor in determining the boundaries) and return to a system of neighborhood schools. There might be some outcry from those who supported “Choice,” whether controlled or advantageous, but clearly this is the only workable solution that reduces busing to an absolute minimum and replaces social engineering with the education of children as the primary purpose of the school district.
Except that, as matters stand today, it simply cannot happen. The most obvious reason is that there is always someone waiting in the wings, ready to file a class-action lawsuit and plunge Rockford back into the nightmare of judicial tyranny. As long as that sword of Damocles hangs over the district’s head, some “balancing”—whether racial or socioeconomic—will always be expedient.
There’s a bigger problem, however, and in this, as in so many other things, Rockford is hardly unique. There simply aren’t enough neighborhood schools in District 205 to handle the close to 30,000 students enrolled in the district. Some of this infrastructure was destroyed as a result of the desegregation lawsuit, as schools were consolidated to help achieve racial balance and others were simply closed to make room for court-ordered “magnet” schools. But most of the smaller schools that once existed inside the district’s boundaries disappeared long before the lawsuit was filed, victims of the century-long push for school consolidation.
A 30,000-student, 170-square-mile monstrosity such as District 205 doesn’t emerge, full grown, from the prairie soil. It took time and planning to bring us to this point, and what did we get for it? The school-desegregation lawsuit.
Without consolidation, the lawsuit simply could not have occurred. The immediate cause of the lawsuit was the closing of West High School, whose student population was about 40-percent black. That was only the latest in a string of school closings, however, that resulted in disproportionate busing of West Side students to East Side schools. (That the federal court’s solution to forced busing was more forced busing was an irony lost on the advocates of the lawsuit.)
The only way to restore and safeguard a neighborhood-school system is deconsolidation, pulling District 205 apart, piece by piece, until we can restore a human scale to public education. Unfortunately, deconsolidation is forbidden under Illinois law; a school district can break into smaller parts only if those parts each unite with an existing district.
Deconsolidation would require changing this absurd law, and here, the size of District 205 might work to its advantage. If the superintendent and the board were to lobby the Illinois legislature, they might actually get a hearing. That, however, assumes that the district leadership has a desire to deconsolidate, and there’s no indication that they do.
And so, for the rest of us, the light grows dim once again, and our long Lenten journey continues.