School Boundaries, Money and Race

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 10:18 AM

Most education reporters think school boundary fights are boring. There are so many of them every year, and they all sound the same: Why does my kid have to take that long bus ride? What are you doing to our neighborhood school? Don't you know this will hurt the quality of education?

Of course if we could write about these disputes honestly, they would not be boring at all. The most intriguing issues of class and race are imbedded in many of them. But it is difficult to get anyone to admit that on the record, so we ignore the stories or bury them on page C11 and move on.

Occasionally however, particularly at Christmas time, gifts drop into my lap. Below is a remarkable account of one boundary dispute in suburban Atlanta sent to me by Shauna Grice, author of the novel "The Memoirs of Sara Harvey" and two more books soon to be published. We were exchanging e-mails about a homework column I did recently when she mentioned the fight over her local school boundary, and I urged her to write about it.

Grice is my guest columnist today. This is a big risk for me since it is clear she is a much better writer, and much braver about getting to the heart of the issue -- how much our school boundaries depend on the skin color and the size of the paychecks of the families involved. Nonetheless, this is a must read:

By Shauna Grice

When the proposed attendance zoning maps for three new schools were released to parents of school-age children in Henry County just south of Atlanta, residents from the county's well-to-do Union Grove community threw back their heads and howled.

In a process to ease over-crowding, facilitated by Dr. Jack Parish, Superintendent of Schools for Henry County, the proposed boundary lines for the new schools had been drawn to include a small portion of the Fairview community. Others in Fairview would remain at the older schools. Fairview is a modest neighborhood made up of children who are predominately African-American and whose parents are less affluent than those who reside in Union Grove, a fact which has sent Union Grove residents reeling.

As a resident of the Fairview community with a child in middle school, I had my concerns. Our streets aren't made of gold, and the neighborhood certainly doesn't boast lavishly decorated Home and Garden-type vacation cottages; but it's not the ghetto either. Homes are modest and well-kept. Homeowners are comprised mostly of middle-aged baby-boomers, preparing for retirement and saving for their kids' college funds all at the same time.

Most of the children I know from Fairview come from good homes with loving parents who teach them to be well-behaved. I couldn't see much difference between families in our neighborhood and those in Union Grove. For days I had debated whether to attend a meeting where parents from both neighborhoods would come together to vent their concerns.

On the night of the meeting, after downloading a copy of the proposed maps off the Internet, I'd finally decided against going. We lived so far north of the zoning boundaries that our son was not likely to be in line to attend any of the new schools, elementary, middle or high schools. Besides, I was in no mood for an emotionally charged discussion where race is the key factor and everybody in the room is trying to act like it's not a factor. I'd had a long day, my feet hurt, and I just wanted to be left out of it.

I resigned myself to let others handle it and walked toward my bedroom for a hot bath. My husband followed me.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company