THERE'S a line in the movie "JFK" where Kevin Costner explains to the jury that theoretical physics can prove that an elephant can hang from a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy.

"But use your eyes, your common sense," Costner tells the jury.

This is good advice when it comes to the racial achievement gap in the Philadelphia public schools. Recently, with the settlement of the decades-old desegregation suit against the school district, district and city officials have suggested that unequal school conditions are the reason white students have higher math and reading skills than black and Latino students.

"Philadelphia, like many other Northeastern cities, has been slow to address and remove the policy barriers that have served to keep poor and minority students in under-resourced schools," said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's secretary of education.

It's not my way to look at people in terms of skin color, but since the race issue has been placed squarely on the table, it's worth investigating further.

Let's start with the racial makeup of several of the highest-performing public schools in the city.

Despite claims that minorities don't have equal access to the best schools, Creative and Performing Arts, Engineering and Science, and Girls High are majority black. Central is evenly balanced between black (31 percent), white (32 percent) and Asian (29 percent), and Masterman is also very diverse.

Let's now look at the demographics of the so-called "white" schools in the Northeast. According to district data, Frankford, Fels, Lincoln and Northeast all have more black students than white - or any other race. Washington and Swenson are also very diverse, with more non-white students than white.

The interesting part about these "privileged" Northeast schools is that all six are "empowerment schools" - which means they're failing because they haven't met the standards set in No Child Left Behind.

The same is true for the Northeast's Meehan Middle School and Fitzpatrick Elementary - they have more nonwhite students than white, and both are categorized as failing.

A school that's predominantly white is Kensington's Charles Carroll High (55 percent white), but once again there are no extra privileges or resources here, because this school is also failing by state standards.

A school that isn't failing is Strawberry Mansion, which is 98 percent black and located in the heart of North Philadelphia. Neither is Bok in South Philadelphia (77 percent black), or Communications Technology in Southwest Philly (98 percent black), or High School of the Future in West Philly (95 percent black). And they aren't the only ones.

So where's the unequal opportunity?

When you analyze the numbers, it becomes clear that Philadelphia's racial achievement gap is more about politics than about a "dark stain" of inequality. There's no legitimate discrimination taking place - the district's 85 empowerment schools, as well as the ones making "adequate yearly progress," are evenly distributed across racial lines and neighborhood boundaries.

But even if there were real discrimination, it would clearly be of an odd kind: Mayor Michael Nutter is black (as was John Street before him), Superintendent Ackerman is black (and she isn't the district's first black leader), SRC chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. (like his two predecessors) is black.

Meanwhile, 61 percent of Philadelphia public-school students (and their parents) are black, while 13 percent are white.

White students may score higher on standardized math and reading tests than their black and Latino counterparts, but educational opportunity is only the tip of the iceberg.

In a newly released report titled "Parsing the Achievement Gap II," the Educational Testing Service tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement.

OF THE 16, nine were directly related to a child's home environment.

Minority children struggle in school for a variety of reasons: lack of parental involvement, low birth weight, hunger and poor nutrition, exposure to lead and mercury, excessive television-watching, and the fact that they are not read to enough as babies, among other things.

If we want all children to succeed in school, it's time to take a holistic approach to education. We not only need more resources in struggling schools, but we need true buy-in from parents and the community.

We all must take responsibility for educating our city's children, and resist the familiar temptation to blame our shortcomings on racism. *

Christopher Paslay is an English teacher at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.