6th Senate district Republican candidate Wayne Coleman raised some eyebrows with his comments on John Frederick’s radio show this week.
I’m old enough to have lived during the desegregation of the schools here locally. And busing children, in my opinion, around the different districts, getting them out of their local neighborhoods, really was the beginning of the decline in some of the school districts.
Listen for yourself.
I’m not sure why Coleman went there. Besides, he’s wrong.
I lived through the desegregation of the schools as well. Coleman, 11 years my senior, has an experience I don’t: I never attended segregated schools. When I started first grade in 1966, Hampton was already in the midst of desegregating its schools. For a couple of years, we had “freedom of choice,” that is, we could attend any school we wanted. In the fall of 1968, Hampton Public Schools implemented busing, which was in place through my remaining years of school.
Norfolk had busing as well. I remember living in Ocean View in the early 1980s and the kids from my part of town – mostly white, lower income kids – were being bused to the other side of town. But by that time, the white flight had already occurred. To try to convince whites to move back to the city (moderately successful) and to enroll their kids in public school (a dismal failure), Norfolk implemented neighborhood schools in 1986, essentially re-segregating the public elementary schools. I argued strenuously with my friend, Bob Hicks, who was on the school board at the time, against it. Until our neighborhoods were socioeconomically mixed, it didn’t make sense to cluster all of the students with the same backgrounds in a single school.
Growing up poor, I understood the value of being exposed to things that were outside of my neighborhood. And school was the place where I was able to see the possibilities. Had I been confined to attending schools just with kids from my neighborhood, I may have succumbed to the same things that keep people in poverty, generation after generation. (This New York Times article makes the point.)
School systems didn’t decline with desegregation. They did so with socioeconomic re-segregation, because, for the most part, the only kids left in public schools are the ones who can’t get out. Norfolk remains a socioeconomically segregated city. It’s the lack of the great melting pot that has created this mess in Norfolk. Just look at the poverty statistics: 56.3% of Norfolk’s students qualify for free lunch, a number that reaches over 90% at several of Norfolk’s schools. Poverty, not desegregation, is the primary reason for the failure.
The answer does not lie with a takeover by Richmond, which is part of what I think Coleman was trying to say. Local issues require local decisions and the legislature needs to support these local efforts, rather than trying to impose a -one-size-fits-all approach.
A representative of the people has a responsibility to see things as they are, not that of their own personal experience, while maintaining a vision for what can be. I don’t know Coleman personally, but those that do tell me he’s a pretty smart guy. This was a bone-headed statement from a pretty smart guy.