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Columbus Schools Experience Enrollment Decline

From the time the baby boomers started school in 1952, an average of 3,300 new students entered the system each year. Shortly after the last of that generation began kindergarten, enrollment got on a downward slope and it never got off. During the early 1970s the school system reached its peak enrollment with almost 111,000 students. But a decade later nearly 40% had left. And today, enrollment is at 55,000, half of what it once was.

The sharpest decline in enrollment in Columbus Public Schools occurred in the years immediately before and after court ordered desegregation. By 1969 many Southern schools had already desegregated. Although Columbus Public Schools had yet to follow suit, they would - ten years later.

I'm Tom Borgerding. The fight to integrate started in 1973 when a 13-year-old student, Gary Penick, filed a lawsuit against the Columbus Board of Education to integrate the schools. The case would be held up in court for several years. Former Columbus Public Schools superintendent Joe Davis served during the court fight. He says the uncertainty caused some parents, white and black, to leave the system. "Parents like to know where are my children going to go to school. And until the order was finalized and the Supreme Court had handed down its decision saying implement in September 1979 there was a considerable amount of instability in knowing where boys and girls would be going." Says Davis

Rhonda Johnson is the president of the Columbus Education Association. She remembers when the court order forced more than 35,000 students to change schools. At the time, Johnson was teaching at the North West Career Center. She recalls students falsifying addresses so they would not have to change schools. Johnson says the forced busing was part of the reason for student loss. "People do leave for that reason. They leave for fear of the unknown. They leave because they don't want their children on a bus, they don't want them to ride two miles or three miles and to be far away from home. That's no different now. They still don't want their kids on a really long bus ride." Says Johnson.

Former superintendent Davis says it's no mystery why the school system lost so many students. He says white and black families who had the money left the city for new suburban subdivisions. And for that reason he never liked the term "white flight." "Move outs, with blacks and whites moving out in the same proportion, which is what led me to call it green flight. And then primarily whites not moving in to the district. You're being transferred from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Columbus, Ohio, you have a family, you did not move in to the Columbus school district, you moved into one of the suburbs." Says Davis.

With many middle-class families fleeing the city and few to replace them, the school district became smaller and poorer. By the 1980s the district faced declining resources which led to something called the so-called "Win-Win" agreement.

As annexations moved Columbus' city limits near suburban boundaries in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, suburban school districts continued to teach children who were technically Columbus city residents. A provision in state law let students in newly annexed areas stay in their suburban school districts. And as a result Columbus schools were denied additional students and tax revenues. In some cases, the state Board of Education designated land into Columbus' school district. But Columbus and surround Franklin County districts continued to fight over turf. So the General Assembly, in 1980, put a halt on any more land transfers. By 1986, Columbus and nearby suburban school districts hammered out the so-called "Win-Win" Agreement. It set up revenue sharing between the city and suburban districts. When asked if Columbus Public Schools would be better off if "Win-Win" had never happened, district superintendent Gene Harris said "Win-Win" was not a total loss. "Any territory that was annexed to the city as a result of "Win-Win" was then a part of Columbus Public Schools. So it allowed us, actually, to maintain some students. So you would say that it helped Columbus Public Schools? Well, I would only say that it allowed us to maintain some students and it allowed us to annex some territory." Says Harris.

Ohio State University Professor John Powell researches urban school districts. He says the practical effect of "Win-Win" is a loss of resources for the city schools. "By basically saying we're going to bring people with resources, middle-class people, often times college educated, sometimes white, sometimes not, into the Columbus jurisdictional area, it's great. But then to say, but your kid does not have to go to school with the kid who is already in Columbus is a real problem." Says Powell.

Next, we'll take a look at some recent issues like state tuition vouchers, No Child Left Behind and violence that have played a part in the enrollment decline. For Mandie Trimble, I'm Tom Borgerding, WOSU News .