Consent Decree 101: The Mis-education of Champaign’s Black Students

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More than 50 years after the landmark
case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education
(1954), this country still has not fulfilled
the dream of desegregation. In fact,
there are many indications that the country
is seeing a trend toward re-segregation
in the public schools after several decades
of white flight.
On December 4, 2006, the Supreme Court heard arguments
in a law suit brought by white families against the
school boards in Louisville and Seattle claiming their white
children have been denied equal treatment. The Republican-
stacked Supreme Court could hand down a decision
this year that would reverse Brown v. B.O.E. and have a
direct bearing on the consent decree here in Champaign.
In January 2002, the Champaign School Board resolved
a legal suit spearheaded by John Lee Johnson and Herb
Stevens that admitted to the unfair treatment of African
American students and agreed to make several improvements.
The school board “consented” to making these
changes, hence this was called a “consent decree.” Last
year, a judge said significant changes have been made by
the Unit 4 School District, but there has not been enough
improvement in the five years since the consent decree
was signed.
Those voices who would like to strike down the consent
decree, like those who wish to undo Brown v. B.O.E.,
have invoked the language of “quotas.” This is the rhetoric
of those who want to default on the promises of integration
and refuse the right of black students to receive an
equal education.
White families from Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle,
Washington, with the backing of the Bush administration,
have taken a law suit to the Supreme Court. Crystal
Meredith, a white mother, has sued the Louisville School
Board arguing that her son was denied access to the school
of his choice “because of his race.” Her lawyer, Teddy Gordon,
claims the school board’s considerations of race are
unconstitutional. He has used inflammatory language,
saying the board makes decisions based on “color coded
children” and is practicing “a pure quota.”
Solicitor General Paul Clememt, speaking for the Bush
administration, told the Supreme Court that the Louisville
and Seattle student assignments represent “very stark
racial quotas.” Ironically, lawyers for the plaintiffs claim
these racial guidelines violate the 14th Amendment, enacted
after the Civil War to ensure equal protection. While
the amendment was intended to provide equal treatment
for African Americans, it makes no explicit reference to
race. Now the plaintiffs in this case are arguing that their
white students have not received such equal protection
under the law.
In 2003, another Supreme Court case supported by the
Bush administration claiming that schools were enforcing
arbitrary racial “quotas” was brought against the University
of Michigan Law School. The Supreme Court decided
that race can be one factor among others in determining
which students are admitted because the state has an
interest in promoting diversity. The case currently before
the Supreme Court will determine whether this rationale
can be applied to primary and secondary schools.
The charges of “quotas” ignore a larger nation-wide pattern
of re-segregation. Jonathan Kozol in his recent book
Shame of the Nation documents this trend and the creation
of what he calls an “educational apartheid.” He gives several
examples, such as Chicago where 87 percent of students
in the public schools are black or Hispanic and only
ten percent are white. One school at the center of the
Supreme Court controversy is Franklin High in Seattle,
where the number of white students since 2000 has fallen
from 23 percent to 10 percent.
These trends are damaging not only to children of
color, who are often left behind in deteriorating school
buildings with outdated textbooks. They are also harmful
to white students who become increasingly provincialminded
and possess little ability to function in an increasingly
diverse American society. But this is not the kind of
harm that concerns the plaintiffs in the current Supreme
Court case.
On October 19, 2006, U.S. District Judge Joe Billy
McDade responded to a status report on the consent
decree compiled by the Champaign School Board. Judge
McDade had already turned down an extension the school
board had asked for in July. After reading the final report,
McDade said the school was “largely unresponsive” to his
orders and did not have a plan for how to speed up
progress before the consent decree expires in 2009.
A ten-year organizing drive, the consent decree began
in 1996. John Lee Johnson, a black community activist
who passed away last year, and Herb Stevens, a local white
millionaire who believed in Johnson, hired the Chicago
law firm Futterman and Howard to file a class action law
suit on the behalf of the African American community.
After five years of negotiating with the Champaign
School Board, the consent decree was approved in January
2001. The agreement was to eliminate racial disparities in
student achievement, gifted education, special education,
and discipline, as well as to do a better overall job of integrating
the Champaign schools.
When organizing efforts began, the situation for black
students was bleak. Only two percent of African Americans
were placed in gifted classes. The law suit filed
claimed the fundamental problem was that the burden of
desegregation was placed on black students, who were
bussed one-way out of their communities while their
white peers were not being bussed north of University
Avenue. Among other improvements, the consent decree
agreed to provide school facilities to fill an additional 220
classroom seats north of University, a number which still
has not been met.
A $66 million bond referendum for three new schools
in Champaign went before the public in March 2006. To
meet the consent decree requirement for additional seats,
one of the schools was planned to be built in Boulder
Ridge, at the intersection of Staley Road and Bradley
Avenue. While this site was technically north of University,
it was on the outer reaches of Champaign, a plan clearly
designed to cater to sprawling housing developments and
white families.
The School Board announced the Boulder Ridge location
on March 13, just a week before the March 21 election.
A swift organizing campaign to defeat the referendum
was organized by Imani Bazzell, head the Urban
League’s Center for Civic Engagement and Social Justice,
as well as other community members who canvassed
neighborhoods and made phone calls.
A masterpiece of political propaganda, they passed out
a flyer that showed an image of African slaves being
dragged off of boats that read “Slavery. We won’t go back!”
The black community was outraged when they found out
about the Boulder Ridge plan and they shot down the referendum
at the polls.
Two days later, on March 23, 2006, after being hospitalized
for several weeks, John Lee Johnson died. While his
presence in the community will be missed, several other
activists have come forward to pick up where he left off.
After Judge McDade told the school board their progress
had fallen short, those supporting the status quo remained
indignant and, like others, resorted to the rhetoric of “quotas.”
Sally Scott, a lawyer for the school district, claimed
there has been a “sea change” of improvements and objected
to any “quotas” imposing standards for these changes.
Yet the Judge has stated consistently that guidelines of
racial fairness are not “quotas” but achievable goals for
eliminating the unfair disparities for black students.
Since the defeat of the school referendum, a collaborative
project has begun between the school district, community
advocates, and University of Illinois experts to
develop a plan for what is being called the “Great Campus.”
The proposal is to build an elementary school that
would meet the need for additional seats on the North
End. The Great Campus would be a new elementary
school at 1103 North Neil Street linking Stratton Elementary
School and the Early Childhood Center. It would provide
an innovative educational model for students from
preschool to the eighth grade.
The plans for the Great Campus involve many innovations
in curriculum, architecture, and community outreach.
It is funded by the UI Chancellor’s Task Force on Civic Commitment in part. Three classes were offered at the University of Illinois as part of
a scoping study. Together, professors and graduate students came up with ideas for the
Great Campus. In the Fall 2006, classes were taught by Bill Trent, professor in Educational
Policy Studies; Rochelle Gutierrez, professor of Curriculum and Instruction, and Ann Bishop,
professor in Library and Information Science.
Several other professors are participating in the coming year. Brenda Lindsey, a professor
at the School of Social Work said, “This is the most exciting collaboration to come along
in Champaign since I’ve been here.”
Mark Aber, a psychology professor who compiled a 2001 Climate Survey in the Champaign
schools, is also excited about the Great Campus. “I can’t wait to send my children
there,” he said.
The Great Campus would be a “green” building constructed with environmentally
sound materials. Class sizes would be smaller and after-school programs would be available.
After speaking with teachers who wanted more parent involvement, graduate students
and professors developed an idea for a community center to provide health care and
employment services for parents.
The idea behind building a 21st century, state-of-the-art school in the heart of the black
community is that it would attract white students into the community and meet the
demands of the consent decree. Fighting the tendencies of white flight and suburban
sprawl, the Great Campus would be a reinvestment in the city .
Imani Bazzell explains how the Great Campus would address the demands of the consent
decree, “How can we best take this original idea which is that we need more seats to
the North and make it about more than buns and seats? Because if we’re just talking about
the need for more seats on this side so there’s an even number on both sides of University,
that doesn’t speak to the fundamental reason we ended up at the table, which was about
the quality of education a whole segment of our student population was receiving.”
In 1933, Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, brilliantly described
the many obstacles for black students in The Mis-education of the Negro. We cannot go
back to promoting this kind of “mis-education” in our community.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
This entry was posted in African Americans, Education, Human Rights, Youth. Bookmark the permalink.

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