Civil rights leaders have reached a tentative agreement with the Anne Arundel school board that sets a goal of erasing the achievement gap between black and white students by 2007, according to an official who negotiated the terms.
The agreement, which is being revised and is subject to school board approval, would end a lawsuit filed last year, on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The suit alleges discrimination against black students in the county's public schools.
Closing the achievement gap is a goal that has eluded educators across the nation. Eric J. Smith, superintendent of schools in Anne Arundel, proposed only to narrow the gap when he took the job in 2002. His systemwide goals include reducing achievement gaps based on race, sex or socioeconomic status to no more than 10 percentage points by 2007.
The proposed settlement with civil rights leaders would supplant that goal, effectively raising the stakes for Smith and the school system, said John Wilson, executive director of the Annapolis civil rights group RESPECT Inc., one of the architects of the settlement.
"We obviously believe that's doable, and I don't think the superintendent would sign up to anything he didn't think he could achieve," Wilson said of the proposed memorandum of understanding. "We are looking for someone to step up and say, 'I am going to be responsible for eliminating that gap.' "
Smith said closing the gap is only a goal, not a mandate. He said civil rights leaders were concerned over "wiggle room" in the existing school board goals, which could allow for gaps to persist.
"We all understand that it's a goal" to close the gap, Smith said. "Our intent is that we work hard to get as close to these goals as possible."
School board members reviewed the document yesterday and sent it back to Wilson's negotiating team with "a few minor wording changes," said Konrad M. Wayson, school board president.
Wayson and others involved in the negotiations would not discuss the settlement terms in detail because the document is incomplete and subject to revision.
NAACP leaders filed the lawsuit, preceded by a complaint to the U.S. Education Department, in May 2004, the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that declared segregation unconstitutional in public schools. The suit alleged that the county school system discriminated against black students on a range of measures, including test scores, Advanced Placement participation, special education and expulsion.
The achievement gap has narrowed in many areas since Smith became superintendent, but it has not closed. In many cases, black and white achievement have risen apace.
On the 2005 Maryland School Assessment test, 79 percent of white students attained proficiency in eighth-grade reading, compared with 56 percent of blacks. The gap persists across the grades.
The graduation rate in Anne Arundel schools as of 2004 was 85 percent for whites and 75 percent for blacks, according to state data.
Blacks are disproportionately represented in special education classes in county public schools, resulting in a state mandate this summer to direct federal money into programs that would help struggling black students remain in regular classes.
The goal of the lawsuit "was to try to get a measurable plan, something that can be monitored, so we can see some progress," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel chapter of the NAACP. "The gap has existed for a long time. And it seems like we've just been putting Band-Aids on it, putting Band-Aids on it. And we want to get in and heal the wound."
School board members might act on the settlement agreement at their next public meeting, in September, Wilson said.