Large numbers of parents attended the New Hanover County (Wilmington, NC) School Board meeting last night to protest the board’s proposed redistricting plans. The board has proposed a plan that would arrange students so that students receiving free and reduced-price lunch would not make up any more than 50% of a school’s student body. To do this, however, some students would have to be bused across the county. Some New Hanover County parents have been very vocal opponents of this plan, organizing events and even launching a website.
Battles between parents and local school boards over busing are not uncommon to North Carolina. Both Wake County (Raleigh, NC) and Charlotte-Mecklenburg deal with similar issues. At issue in each debate is the question of whether school boards should play an active role in ensuring diversity, whether racial or socioeconomic. Few people today openly disparage the goal of diversity in schools, but upon realizing that diversity does not magically appear without some degree of inconvenience to some person or group, diversity’s fans tend to fall by the wayside. Because neighborhoods are not typically socioeconomically diverse, districting plans where school attendance boundaries are drawn with proximity to the school as the only consideration do not result in socioeconomically diverse schools.
Why is socioeconomic diversity important? Well, the research is clear that students with low SES backgrounds perform at higher levels in schools with more heterogeneous socioeconomic student bodies. Additionally, it is my contention that all students benefit from experiencing diversity in schools; diversity that is a reflection of our communities and our world.
In communities across America, we are finding that the broader collective goals of public education (achievement for all children, diversity, etc.) may at times conflict with our individual goals (best education for my child, at the greatest convenience for my family). We will continue to fight battles like the one brewing in New Hanover County until we come to some consensus on the purpose of our public schools. Are they here to serve us collectively or individually? We are seeing that we may not be able to have both all the time.