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  • Commentary:Leaving Children Behind? Depends on Where You Live
  • Sharon C. Cobb (bio)

One of the major challenges facing federal, state and local government officials in the United States is K-12 school assessment and accountability. This commentary is a reaction to Jason Dittmer's paper Assessing School Assessment: A Case Study of the Geographic Implications of the A + Plan in Jacksonville, Florida, which raised a number of thought-provoking issues for me-both as an economic geographer with an interest in spatial trends in the local community, and on a personal level as the parent of three school-age children, the Chairperson of a Jacksonville Elementary School Advisory Council, and an advisor to the Chair of a Magnet Middle School Advisory Council.

Jacksonville/Duval County, Florida is an urban area of over three-quarters of a million residents with over 65% of the population classified white, 28% African American and 3% Asian (U.S. Census Bureau 2000).1 Jacksonville exhibits many of the problems typical of a large U.S. city including poverty, unemployment, crime and drug abuse, mostly occurring in the traditional urban core (often described in local vernacular as the 'Northwest Quadrant'). This is an area of minority populations and the economically disadvantaged, and exhibits the highest levels of poverty-related problems. Jacksonville's growing suburban fringes have different ethnicities, being comprised of overwhelmingly white and increasingly Asian and Hispanic populations.

Dittmer's case study is an interesting one because it brings a relatively new insight to spatial divides and tensions between class and ethnicity, by grounding analysis of education issues in a neo-liberal framework in the context of a rapidly growing southern city. Until recently, little attention has been paid to the Jacksonville area, but new evidence suggests that this is changing whether it be the recognition within academia that a gap in the literature exists with respect to education; concern by policy makers that Northeast Florida is one of the fastest growing regions in the state; or awareness of local media that the world will soon be looking at Jacksonville as the host city of the 2005 American football 'Super bowl' extravaganza.

The Duval County Public School System (called the 'District' by teachers and administrators) educates over 129,000 students with a 2003 budget of $1.25 billion. According to District officials, the ethnic breakdown of the student body is: 46.8% white, 42.6% African American, 4.7% Hispanic, 3.1% Asian (Duval County Public Schools 2003). The difference between the ethnicity of the county as a [End Page 186] whole and the ethnicity of the District is immediate and raises the question 'why?' This question can be answered in terms of undeniable evidence of 'white flight' from the public system to private education or alternative education such as homeschooling (Anonymous 2004).

To give credit to the District, attempts have been made to artificially create an unsegregated learning environment for Jacksonville's students by establishing select magnet programs in schools located mostly in the urban core and busing (mostly white) students from the suburbs into town (in addition to Dittmer 2004, see Covey and Cobb 2004; Stranahan and Borg 2004). One of the most successful magnet programs in the District is for gifted and academically talented students which has created ethnically-balanced classrooms in downtown schools. However, criticism over the state's 'nearly gifted' designations for minority and low-income students generated 'reversediscrimination' type lawsuits resulting in the removal of the separate track for minorities into the gifted program and decreasing minority participation in the state's gifted programs (Golden 2004).

Dittmer's paper argues that the funding mechanism put in place by the state of Florida to reward schools based on standardized test results (the FCAT) is biased against predominantly African-American and poor neighborhoods. While I don't agree with the statistical methodology used to model the number of 'wins'-that indeed is an unfortunate use of terminology, public education isn't a sport with winners and losers, it is a public good that just needs to be made better!-Dittmer's findings are a useful addition to the literature and provide another piece of evidence for the tremendous difference in...


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