Magic Bus

The NAACP's education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?

Evelyn Eubanks uses a bare foot to push a crate of papers past her solid, reddish-wood buffet, whose leaded-glass cupboards overflow with textbooks. Math, phonics, world history, religion; the volumes run from primers for beginners to thicker, heavier tomes for older students. Still more books are crammed into a sideboard along another wall of the room. Two or three rest atop a long table in front of the china cabinet.

This is Eubanks's dining room--and classroom, the space where she has home-schooled five of her six kids for the last five years. Periodically she gives samples of their work to state officials, who in turn send back report cards. They show that all of the kids have been scoring well above average, and several are earning straight A's.

She ducks into a back room and returns carrying a blue plastic bin the size of a laundry basket, packed with still more papers. She rifles through dozens of files stacked in the container and starts pulling out documents that show why she took her kids out of the Minneapolis public schools. She comes across some bits of paper concerning her daughter: Back in 1991, the girl earned straight A's in kindergarten. But administrators at her school concluded that instead of being considered for the gifted and talented program, she should be in remedial classes.

Kimberly Schamber

Next, Eubanks unearths crumbling report cards from the year her son was in second grade. At some point, his teachers quit sending home letter grades and started evaluating him based on his behavior in school. The kid's report cards were just fine either way, but Eubanks was furious: "His behavior--that's my job," she fumes. "The schools are supposed to teach him to read and write."

A few years ago, when Eubanks lined up the documents sent home with her kids and added in the things she'd heard school administrators say about the challenges posed by families like hers--black, low-income, headed by a single parent--she came to an ugly conclusion. Year after year test scores had been showing that too many minority children were failing in the Minneapolis schools. Someone--or maybe just the system--must have gotten tired of the dismal statistics and decided to lower the bar. If her kids just showed up and behaved right, the schools would count them as success stories--whether or not they were ready to succeed in real life.

At this point Eubanks's speech takes on a politician's practiced cadence. "Just because we are low-income does not mean we are low-life," she says. And: "They were teaching my children not to compete in a competitive world." Listen to her for a while and it becomes clear that she speaks in sound bites because she's been talking about these topics for years.

Back in 1983 Eubanks heeded district officials' calls for more "parent involvement" and joined the parent-teacher organizations at both of her kids' schools. She took turns serving as president of each; she also joined the panel charged with deciding how and what kids at one of her children's schools would be taught.

By her own admission, Eubanks asked so many pointed questions, she soon found herself ostracized. "I have a horrible reputation as a whiner and a complainer and an eccentric," she laughs. Eventually, she recalls, her kids started to hear school employees criticize her. That's when she gave up on working within the system.

Which brings her to a second stack of documents--a paper trail tracing her involvement with a five-year lawsuit filed by the Minneapolis NAACP. In 1995 the civil-rights organization sued the State of Minnesota, charging that Twin Cities public schools had failed to provide the "adequate education" mandated by the state constitution. It had done this, the suit charged, by allowing poor and minority children to become segregated into inferior schools. At the time, the attorneys and assorted power brokers who spearheaded the suit said it was a landmark case: If the NAACP won--or even if it only negotiated a settlement--poor Minneapolis kids would be guaranteed the kind of topnotch education their wealthier counterparts took for granted.

Eubanks was not one of the seven parents named in the lawsuit, but she was determined to help. In 1997 she began attending brainstorming sessions and mediation workshops, and rallying other parents. She also joined the NAACP's education committee. Her files from that time are crammed with agendas, outlines of negotiating strategies, consultants' reports.

But about a year ago, Eubanks quit going to the meetings. Somehow, none of her concerns had ended up in the documents the attorneys were using to draw up proposals for a settlement. When a deal was finally announced this past March, all she could muster was a frustrated feeling of déjà vu.

"I left one system that exploited me and went to another," she says, shaking her head. "I was used. And I say 'used' because all of my participation did not result in a better education for my kids or anyone else."

Under the deal, each year 500 Minneapolis children will be able to use state-paid transportation to attend schools in the suburbs. In addition, low-income children will be given admissions preference at popular magnet schools, and educators will perform biennial evaluations of every school in the district. Proponents of the deal are calling it a strong first step; critics like Eubanks say it doesn't even begin to provide the basics their kids need right now.

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