June 30, 2002, arrived with little fanfare, an odd ending to 13 years of judicial tyranny here in Rockford. Perhaps that’s because the Rockford school-desegregation lawsuit officially ended on a Sunday; more likely, it’s because most Rockfordians didn’t realize the significance of that day (just as they never quite understood what has happened over the past 13 years), while those who did understand were too busy breathing a sigh of relief to shout for joy. The local Gannett paper (LGP) ran a fairly subdued story, with none of the hysterics that have often colored their coverage of the case (they saved those for Executive Editor Linda Grist Cunningham’s column the next week); but the Rock River Times, a local weekly that often provided the only honest coverage of the lawsuit (outside of the pages of Chronicles, of course), did not mention the event in its July 3-9 issue, even though its editor and publisher, Frank Schier, must have found the Independence Day theme hard to resist. It’s over, the silence fairly screamed. Let’s get on with our lives.
But after 13 years and nearly a third of a billion dollars, is it actually over? Set aside (for the moment) the question of whether District 205 is likely to be sued again. (I would lay better than even odds that another lawsuit will be filed within the year.) What about what Mrs. Cunningham calls “the $250 million question”? (Even now that the lawsuit has ended, the LGP continues to revise down the costs.) In her column on July 7, she asks whether “Rockford learned its lessons about discrimination and the questions of equality in education.” But the very question, and Mrs. Cunningham’s insistence that Rockford taxpayers must continue to spend vast amounts on public education (currently, close to $10,000 per student), shows that she, like some of the school-board members who opposed the lawsuit, still doesn’t understand the main issue. Federal Magistrate P. Michael Mahoney’s obsession with racial quotas, both by school and by classroom, had virtually nothing to do with “equality in education” and even less to do with quality in education. If it had, then the Rockford school system—now the most desegregated district in the nation—would not have 23 schools—half of the schools in the district—on the state’s educational watch list and nine on the federal “No Child Left Behind” watch list. The same is true of educational funding.
From very early on, the LGP and other supporters of the lawsuit argued that the quickest way to regain local control was to comply with the court’s orders. The argument was disingenuous: What they really wanted was not to end the lawsuit but to convince the opposition to support the court’s social engineering. As Mrs. Cunningham wrote on July 7:
I believe the federal court with its explicit and expensive remedies was bound and determined to make Rockford do right by its black and Hispanic students, and, if that cost a lot of money, which it did, so be it. For the court, the $250 million was a small price to pay for doing the right thing.
According to Mrs. Cunningham, the court’s social-engineering schemes were necessary because
I believe there were seriously bigoted people who deliberately harmed black and Hispanic students. I also believe those deliberate bigots were few and far between. Most of Rockford just paid no attention to the discrimination: whites because they didn’t know it was going on, or closed their eyes to it; blacks and Hispanics because they accepted such discrimination as “just the way things are done here.”
By defining the argument in terms of the best way to end the lawsuit, the supporters of the court’s social engineering eventually succeeded in convincing school-board members Ted Biondo and Patti Delugas—who were elected on promises to end judicial taxation, cut spending, and cut the taxes that were under their control—to focus their efforts instead on ending the lawsuit, even if that meant voting for illegal taxes and leaving in place expensive (and educationally destructive) programs ordered by the court. In the process, they alienated their supporters, expropriated two more years’ worth of illegal taxes (only 80 percent of which were later paid back to the small minority of taxpayers who had protested their taxes), and hired a superintendent who, during his public interviews, declared that he could help the Rockford school district increase its funding. And he has—since his arrival, District 205 has passed three referenda, and the school board is currently debating placing a fourth on the ballot this November. As a result, both property-tax rates and spending are only marginally lower than they were at the height of the lawsuit.
After 13 years of federal control, School District 205 has fewer schools and fewer students; higher taxes; runaway spending; lower test scores (despite the efforts of the new superintendent’s handpicked director of testing, who was fired after board member Stephanie Caltagerone discovered that she had manipulated test scores to make it appear that they were rising rather than declining); institutionalized busing; a massive bilingual program (including an entire bilingual school); social promotion (which resulted in at least 23 eighth-grade students who received straight “F”s passing on to ninth grade, including one student who attended all of five days of school last year); and a curriculum designed to bring about Mrs. Cunningham’s desired “equality of education,” as long as she means the equality of dunces.
It is one thing to have brought an end to the lawsuit; it would have been quite another if Ted Biondo and Patti Delugas had stuck to their guns and ended it properly. As King Pyrrhus discovered at Heraclea and Asculum, some victories come at too great a cost.
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