- - Friday, August 16, 2013

Being trapped in a close place without an exit is the stuff of many a nightmare. For public school students in Huntsville, Ala., home to a NASA installation and lots of defense-related industries, it’s a living nightmare.

Officials of the Huntsville school system have deferred to the U.S. Department of Justice, despite an Alabama law enacted this year that grants students in an underperforming public school the right to transfer to a better public school. The Huntsville Times reports, however, that school officials will allow only eight Huntsville students to transfer, although the “Alabama Accountability Act” theoretically grants this right to everyone.

The Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund warned Huntsville official that U.S. law trumps state law, and they call into question the transfers. No one has accused Huntsville officials of trying to “resegregate” the Huntsville schools, but there is speculation, lacking evidence, that this might happen. It’s an old argument. Parents black and white want the best education for their children, to prepare them for the real world of college and a tough job market, where skill and training are rewarded. The Justice Department appears to be looking for something else to meddle in. So does the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which seems to define the “advancement” of blacks in Huntsville as keeping children in bad schools.

At issue is a 1970 federal desegregation order that still applies to the Huntsville school system. Times have changed since then, and nowhere more dramatically than in Huntsville over those 43 years. Huntsville’s population has exploded, and the demands on the schools, keyed to preparing children for a high-tech job market, have been transformed beyond what could have been imagined in those years now fading from memory.

Laurie McCaulley, the president of the Huntsville school board, is no fan of the Alabama Accountability Act. She insists that the standard for what constitutes a failing school is based on data from 2007, and that many of those “failing” schools are performing much better now.

“They say I don’t want to go to a school that’s failing,” Miss McCaulley told the Huntsville Times. “You try to talk to them about data, and they don’t want to hear that.”

There will always be arguments over whether and how much the schools have improved. It may indeed be the case that once-failing schools in Huntsville have improved substantially in the past six years. And perhaps the Alabama Accountability Act could stand an overhaul. But the issues of school choice and of putting students first seem to be lost on both the Department of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Seeking to keep their lawyers busy, these two enterprises are more concerned about “balance” in the classrooms than what is actually being learned in those classes.

That focus isn’t fair to the children, who will likely have higher hurdles to success than those in the non-failing schools. It’s a shame that these outside forces are devoting their energies to preserving a bad status quo, rather than finding ways to improve education in endangered schools. And it’s too bad that Huntsville’s schools leadership is going along without a whimper of protest.

The Washington Times