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?
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.”
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.
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.