Integration by Income Proving Unpopular

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Saying they support "diversity by choice," members of a task force led by three local mayors are urging the Wake County, N.C., school district to abandon a student-assignment plan that aims for economic integration and adopt a neighborhood-schools approach instead.

The 30-member committee wants the district to revamp its nationally recognized assignment plan this year as it considers attendance-zone changes to accommodate seven new schools set to open next fall. The schools are expected to have a total capacity of roughly 6,700 students.

In 2000, Wake County, which includes Raleigh, replaced its race-based assignment plan with one that integrates schools on the basis of students' family wealth. The change was designed to head off potential legal battles, while maintaining socioeconomic balance in schools.

But some residents have found the 109,000-student district's plan hard to digest. They claim that parents fed up with the district's student-assignment rules are pulling their children out of the public schools.

"We want to end forced busing against parents' wishes," said Cynthia Matson, a task force member and the president of Assignment by Choice, a local parent group. "We want people to have the right to choose what's in the best interests of their children."

Many of the same parents voiced their displeasure with the wealth-based assignment plan last year. But others argue that returning to neighborhood schools would mean a return to racially imbalanced schools. ("Broad Effort to Mix Students by Wealth Under Fire in N.C.," May 22, 2002.)

"In every county that we are aware of and looked at that had an unbridled choice plan, the schools have resegregated," said Michael R. Evans, the senior director of communications for the Wake County schools. "Creating a system of haves and have-nots does not produce the high academic achievement that we've enjoyed."

Mr. Evans said 91 percent of the district's students in grades 3-8 were performing at or above grade level on state mathematics and reading tests. About 59 percent of the district's students are white, 29 percent are black, 6.5 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are Asian, and fewer than 2 percent are multiracial.

'Losing Market Share'

Concerned that the county schools were "losing market share" that could ultimately harm the town of Cary's quality of life, Mayor Glen D. Lang called on his counterparts in the towns of Apex and Garner in northwestern Wake County to form a task force last year. Cary, which has about 107,000 residents, is one of the county's wealthiest communities.

Glen D. Lang

Mayor Lang, whose term ends next month, estimates that 75 percent of Wake County's school-age children attend public schools, compared with 93 percent in the mid-1980s. Parents complain that their children are being bused to schools 45 minutes away, he said.

The district's lack of long-term planning has led to attendance-zone changes that forced children to change schools several times, he added.

Ms. Matson contends that the school system's focus on students who struggle academically has left the needs of high-achieving students neglected.

"The number-one factor above educating students is diversity and, as a result, everyone is suffering," she said.

The task force plans to make a presentation to the school board in January.

"They've got their heels dug in," said Mr. Lang. "How can they say the system is working if you have people abandoning the school system?"

Samuel L. Bridges, the mayor of Garner, wrote in a letter to the local newspaper that he wants the board to consider different options for student assignment, but that he supports the goal of having "fully integrated" schools.

But proponents of a change in policy express little optimism that the board will change the plan. Assignment By Choice is turning its focus to school board elections, and it supported a candidate who was elected last month.

Cyndi Soter O'Neil, the director of communications and research for the Wake Education Partnership, located in Raleigh, said she believes that most county residents support the district's commitment to both diversity and high academic standards.

Keith A. Sutton, the president of the Triangle Urban League, argued that those who advocate neighborhood schools are largely affluent white parents who believe that because they live in wealthy communities, they can choose where their children attend school.

"Frankly, it doesn't work like that," he said, "for poor kids or for rich kids."

Most students actually attend the "nearest or second-nearest" schools in their neighborhoods, according to Mr. Evans. He added that 35 of the district's 127 schools have magnet programs, and that another 15 have year-round programs, providing parents with ample choices.

The district will complete a series of 11 community meetings this month on the issue. A countywide committee appointed by the school board will present its own recommendations in January on diversity, academic achievement, and other issues.

Vol. 23, Issue 11, Page 3

Published in Print: November 12, 2003, as Integration by Income Proving Unpopular
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