School districts across North Carolina are on the verge of eliminating busing policies aimed at achieving racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. Without those policies in place, those districts would become systems of primarily neighborhood schools which will undoubtedly be as socioeconomically and racially segregated as the neighborhoods where they stand. North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has said of recent initiatives across the state to move toward neighborhood schools, “It’s the most troubling thing I think that’s happened.” Governor Perdue has been vocal about her position on increasing and maintaining diversity in North Carolina’s public schools, saying “Whether it’s racially done or economically done, there has to be some kind of momentum to continue to have diversity in our schools.”
Critics of Wake County’s (Raleigh and surrounding suburbs) current policy which uses busing to maintain racial balance in schools argue that the practice does not result in traditionally under-served students receiving a higher quality education. Instead, they argue that these students are merely spread out across the school district so that their test scores don’t adversely affect any one school. According to Wake County School Board member John Tedesco, “If we have 5 or 10 percent of the children shuffled out among resources in other parts of the county, where they’re not getting the appropriate attention they need but we’re meeting some arbitrary goals, then we’re not serving those children well.”
This can be a pretty sensitive subject, and both sides articulate and support their arguments very well. But here are some facts. A retreat from reassignment policies will result in a considerably higher degree of racial and socioeconomic segregation in North Carolina’s public schools. There’s no getting around that. Because neighborhoods are largely racially and socioeconomically segregated, the assignment of students to neighborhood schools will result in each school’s demographics mirroring the demographics of the neighborhood(s) that it serves. This scenario is not foreign to us because it is the reality in most places across the US. Most of our children today attend neighborhood schools, and there are many benefits of neighborhood schools, including sense of community, ease of parental involvement, and schools’ geographic placements making them ideal for serving as community hubs.
But there are drawbacks to neighborhood schools as well. Neighborhood schools that serve middle and upper middle class neighborhoods typically are well-supported financially, stocked with resources, and staffed by highly qualified teachers. Schools that serve poor neighborhoods, however, typically do not have high levels of support, adequate resources, or sufficient numbers of highly qualified staff. This happens for a number of interrelated reasons. Because public education funding is dependent at least in part based on local property taxes, and the tax bases of lower income communities are smaller, the schools that serve poor communities typically operate with less funding. Lower funding results in fewer resources and lower local salary supplements for teachers. Also, some of the most qualified teachers have been less likely to apply for and stay in schools with lower pay and that serve lower income students and/or students of color. Any combination of these factors are reasons why some school boards have believed it necessary to maintain policies that racially and/or socioeconomically desegregate public schools, giving students from lower income neighborhoods opportunities to attend the same schools that children from higher income neighborhoods attend.
Maintaining diverse schools, however, has come at a cost to some families. Such policies have resulted in some children having to transfer schools, and significant numbers of children being bused to schools that are considerable distances away from their homes. There is no easy fix here. For the fundamental question that underlies this debate is what is the purpose of public schools? This is the same question that I believe underlies the current school choice debate. It’s a tough question. Regardless of how its answered, new questions arise. Do the goals of maintaining diversity in public schools and ensuring that all children have the opportunity to attend high quality schools trump my individual desire to have my child attend my neighborhood school? Does my child have a right to a sound, basic education at the school of my choosing, or just at “a” school? These are questions that we must come to some consensus on. I highly suggest that we start to deal with these questions in a meaningful way, because it is important that we have at least similar ideas of what public schools are here for. I argue that that consensus is necessary for moving forward with education policy in a truly meaningful way.