Friday, May 19, 2000

Joel L. Freedman loves the public schools in Westport, Conn., loves his child’s teachers and loves the multicultural curriculum. So why has he filed a formal complaint against the school system with the U.S. Department of Labor charging discriminatory hiring practices?

Having moved from Manhattan to Westport, which is an affluent and affluently charming seaside town where the average Joe or, in this case, average Joel earns close to $100,000, Mr. Freedman seems suddenly to have discovered a distressing lack of “diversity” around him. That is, not only is he, himself, a white person, but the moneyed population of the town is also almost entirely dare we say, exclusively? white. His child, also white, attends the public elementary school along with other, mostly white children, where they are taught by mostly white teachers. Talk about children at risk. Joel L. Freedman thinks that something must be done. And he is trying to enlist the federal government to do it.

According to The New York Times, Mr. Freedman is worried because the children of Westport aren’t meeting people of other races. As a result, Mr. Freedman is asking the federal government to compel Westport to hire minority teachers. Of course, Westport officials, also white (natch), would like to do exactly that. In fact, while school Superintendent Elliott Landon doesn’t exactly enjoy being slapped with a Department of Labor charge, he nonetheless thinks it’s “wonderful” that people like Joel Freedman are out there to “ensure that what is right ultimately is what is pursued.”

But the truth is, far from being discriminatory, Westport public schools have made yeoman sorry, yeoperson efforts to recruit minority teachers of any and all colors. According to Mr. Landon, “diversity” is a top priority. Want ads run accompanied by the slogan, “Minority candidates are encouraged to apply.” Westport officials make a point of attending jobs fairs in person to get around those pesky nondiscrimination laws that make it illegal to request racial information about a job applicant. “We don’t just say we are an equal opportunity employer,” Mr. Landon said. “We say we are an equal opportunity employer dedicated to diversity in our schools.” Even if there isn’t any.

And there isn’t. Out of roughly 400 Westport teachers, librarians and guidance counselors, only “about six” rate as members of minority groups. (“At the same time,” the New York Times reports, “nearly half of the school system’s service employees are black or Hispanic, another issue that concerns Mr. Freedman.”) This lack of “diversity” that has the district a-dither white fright? has not gone unnoticed, with such groups as the Connecticut Center for School Change proposing new regional districts to replace local districts in order to increase the “diversity” of Connecticut’s student populations. Busing, anyone? Not too surprisingly, this idea hasn’t exactly gone over big with the Westport set. In fact, you might say that a little diversity seems to go a long way. Given the choice of student body diversity vs. faculty diversity, parents pick faculty diversity almost every time.

But despite Westport’s ongoing efforts, the schools continue to come up short. Officials blame the dearth of minority teachers on the shortage of teachers generally, along with Westport’s stratospheric housing costs. And then there is what Mr. Landon calls the “socialization experience” the acclimatization process necessary for anyone (of any color) who decides to work in this overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly wealthy town. “Coming into a wealthy community can be intimidating to a lot of people,” he says.

Intimidating is one word for it. Downright off-putting is another. Mr. Landon and Mr. Freedman might do well to consider a shocking possibility: Not everyone wants to work in Westport. That could be a big part of their problem. Meanwhile, one wonders what the government is supposed to do about it. It sure looks like a nonstarter: nondiversity through nondiscrimination.

At least one simple remedy comes to mind: Mr. Freedman could move back to New York City, where the schools are 37 percent Hispanic, 36 percent black, 10 percent Asian and only 6 percent white. Interestingly enough, the city’s education story of the week is the election of a new schools chancellor, Harold O. Levy, who is not only white but Jewish. His race and religion are newsworthy because they reverse a de facto policy in place for almost two decades during which only blacks and Hispanics were even considered for the post. “I think people realize that just because a person may be black or Latino doesn’t make him or one hopes, in the future, her the best person for the job,” Dennis Walcott, president of the New York Urban League told the New York Times. “I think people are more interested not in racial dynamics but concrete issues of having teachers able to teach, of having children able to read.”

Tell it to Westport.

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