In a historic vote Tuesday night, the Wake County School Board (Raleigh, NC) voted to end the district’s longstanding policy of busing to achieve diversity in its public schools; a policy which has earned the district national recognition as recently as 2009. For over 30 years, the Wake County School Board has used either race or socio-economic status as factor in making school assignment decisions. The vote Tuesday was the first of two approvals that the board will need to scrap the diversity policy and require that children begin attending neighborhood schools. The new board resolution would result in the North Carolina’s largest school district being divided into community zones, with each zone having its own magnet, year-round, and traditional calendar schools. If approved on March 23, the community zones would be phased in over the next three years. Many of the specifics of the board’s plan, however, have yet to be fully worked out.
The board’s vote was not really a surprise. Newly elected board members had campaigned on the promise of ending the district’s controversial diversity policy, with their actions Tuesday being their first steps toward fulfilling campaign promises. The board’s intentions have already resulted in the district superintendent, Dr. Dell Burns, announcing his retirement effective June 30, 2010. Dr. Burns has been a vocal opponent of the school board’s plans.
Supporters of ending the busing policy contend that they want stability in their children’s school assignments, citing examples of children who are moved to different school throughout the course of their time in middle school or high school. They also begrudge their children having to attend schools may be on the other side of the county for the sake of maintaining diversity. Critics of the board’s decision to abandon the diversity policy argue that ending consideration of diversity in school assignment will result in the resegregation of schools in Wake County; something the school district has a long history of trying to prevent. In 1976, the Raleigh and Wake County school boards merged with just that purpose of preventing Wake County schools from becoming “white-flight” havens, and the public schools of Raleigh becoming predominantly minority schools with a disproportionately high concentrations of poverty. The board’s recent success in maintaining racial and socio-economic diversity has earned it national recognition several times over the last couple years; not to mention that the district’s diversity policy has been instrumental in maintaining its position as one of the highest performing school districts in North Carolina.
Having spent many hours discussing the issue over the last several years with good people on both sides of this issue, I do understand both sides of the debate; but I believe the Wake County School Board is making a decision that will be disastrous for the school district. I do not doubt that changes should be made to the current assignment policies to ease the burden of busing on families to the greatest extent possible. But the greater good is clearly maintaining diversity in Wake’s schools. Currently, the school district operates in such a manner that regardless of children’s race or socioeconomic status, they have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education. That will end with the ending of busing in Wake County. In the absence of the board’s current diversity policy, children who live in high-poverty neighborhoods will attend schools with the same high concentrations of poverty, and those students will not receive the same quality education that they currently receive in Wake County. Examples of the failures of high-poverty neighborhood schools are everywhere; and call me a pessimist, but the Wake County School Board has neither the answer nor the will to make high-poverty schools work for students with any consistency. There are just too many variables stacked against high-poverty schools and low-income students, and overcoming them all would be nothing short of magical. Anyone who says anything different is naive or being deliberately untruthful. It will not work. That is why groups who oppose abandoning this policy have been so vocal, and why some citizens have at time been brought to tears; it is because they know that ending the consideration of diversity with school assignment will mean big changes in the quality of education that low-income students in Wake County receive.
It appears that convincing the new board majority that neighborhood schools will do a disservice to low-income families will not result in their deciding to keep the diversity policy. The truth is that this decision has nothing to do with the fate of low-income students. This decision to end the current diversity policy is a selfish one. It is about me, and my children, and our convenience, and the hell with everyone else. Maybe I am too idealistic, but I believe public schools are supposed to be about the fulfillment of larger societal goals too. Is that not why we invest so much government funding in them; because we believe their role goes beyond serving us individually?