Equity & Diversity

A Losing Fight to Keep Schools Desegregated

By Christina A. Samuels — August 12, 2019 | Corrected: August 13, 2019 14 min read
Letha Muhammad, of south Raleigh, sends her children to district magnet schools in Wake County, N.C., including Moore Square Magnet Middle School pictured behind her. An education activist, Muhammad says it’s critical that the school board be sensitive to how all communities are impacted by any changes to the district’s school assignment plan.
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Corrected: An earlier version of the article gave an incorrect last name for Keith Sutton, the vice-chairman of the Wake County School Board.

Few districts have done as much as Wake County, N.C., has to keep its schools racially and socioeconomically diverse.

It is a battle that the school board says it has been losing.

Now, the school board in Wake County, which includes the state capital of Raleigh, has publicly declared that it wants to reverse a trend where increasing numbers of its schools are overwhelmingly poor or affluent, and as a result, increasingly separated by race. In the county, as in North Carolina as a whole, schools with predominantly poor and minority students have more inexperienced teachers and fewer rated by the state as effective, even though the children may have the highest academic needs.

If any district might be able to slow the trend, it would be Wake County, the nation’s 16th largest school system.

The question is, will it?

Wake County’s latest conversation about school diversity started earlier this summer, just a few weeks before the Democratic presidential debate that propelled court-ordered desegregation—and the role that busing played to achieve it—back into the national consciousness. Striving for racially and economically mixed schools has long been part of Wake County’s community identity, even as those efforts have stoked criticism and resistance.

Since 1976, the 160,000-student district has used race or, more recently, socioeconomic status, as a factor in deciding where some students are assigned to school, though how heavily race or family wealth is weighed has varied through the years. Overall, the district is about 46 percent white, 23 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent Asian. Most of the remaining student population is classified as multiracial. About a third of its students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches.

Even with a racially rich mix of students to draw from, Wake County, which sprawls over 850 square miles, faces strong head winds in its pursuit of more integrated schools.

There’s a fast-growing charter school sector that has proven attractive to white and affluent families. A 2015 study by researchers at Duke found that the statewide share of white students at charter schools was 62 percent in 2012, compared to 53 percent for white students at traditional public schools that year.

And 10 years ago, voters who were angered by frequent school reassignments because of massive growth in the district elected a Republican-backed school board majority that promised change. That board created a neighborhood-based student assignment policy, eliminating the goal of socioeconomic diversity altogether.

That particular school assignment policy lasted only one year. The board members who favored it were voted out of office two years later, and ever since, the board has been under the control of a Democratic-backed majority.

‘Deep Frustration’

But up to this point, the school board has not reinstated a policy that aims for a specific demographic balance within schools. Currently, socioeconomic diversity within schools is one element of the student assignment policy, but so are factors such as student stability and maintaining efficiency in transportation and facility usage.

As a result, the district currently buses fewer students than it has in prior years.

Jim Martin, the chairman of the nine-member school board, said he and his colleagues are mindful of the past. The district has chosen to keep student assignments fairly stable for the past several years in order to ease a chaotic situation created by the previous board.

“We don’t want to go back to a time where it felt like the school board was rearranging pawns on a chessboard,” said Martin, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who is white. “Student assignment is one of the tools to address equitable and integrated schools. It is not the only tool. It’s not just about busing.”

With that said, “the whole issue of having, strong, equitable, diverse integrated schools is why I ran for office in the first place back in 2011,” Martin said. “We have not been able to reverse some of these increasing segregating trends, and that is a deep frustration.” Socioeconomic equity, Martin said, means more resources at a school level, which drives “opportunity creation.”

But ultimately, further student assignment changes is not what parents want, said Terry Stoops, the director of education studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. Stoops and his wife, Jaime, are co-founders of a K-8 charter school opening in Angier, N.C. in the 2019-20 school year. With a final enrollment projected at about 600, it will draw students from southern Wake County as well as two neighboring counties.

Stoops said parents are drawn to his school because it will use Core Knowledge and Singapore Math, and because it promises to be a place their children can stay from kindergarten until the end of middle school.

“There doesn’t seem to be any active effort to reach out to parents and ask them whether they desire this, or whether this would make their decision to stay in the Wake County public schools or go to a school of choice any different,” said Stoops, whose children are enrolled in a district magnet school and in a charter school. He believes the board is floating a trial balloon by talking about a renewed commitment to diversity.

“But their unwillingness to make this change over the last eight years is an effort to keep the board in the hands of a Democrat-backed majority. This is an instance where politics trumps their ideology,” he said.

‘Diversity Is Important to Me’

Wake County’s recommittal to school diversity came during a board retreat in early June. The pointed exchange over busing between Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Joe Biden came one month later.

Much of the coverage of the Harris-Biden exchange focused on the angry opposition to court-ordered desegregation efforts. But that type of court intervention didn’t happen in Wake County. In 1976, school leaders in Wake and the predominantly black Raleigh city district decided to buck community sentiment and merge, thus avoiding judicial oversight of student assignments.

Wake County is also an outlier just by choosing to continue pursuing diversity in school assignments at all. Most school districts draw boundaries to enroll children in the closest neighborhoods, which replicates residential segregation.

Educational researchers at the Century Foundation and Pennsylvania State University, using different measurement methods, have counted between 60 and 100 districts that engage in voluntary desegregation efforts. That’s out of about 13,000 school districts nationwide.

Hundreds more districts may be under desegregation plans overseen by the federal government, but poor record-keeping makes that number difficult to quantify. What is known is that judges have released more than 200 school districts from federal oversight since the early 1990s.

The judicial winds have also shifted for districts. The U.S. Supreme Court, once the driver of school integration, quashed district plans that use an individual student’s race in school assignments in its 2007 decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. Wake County, which once had an explicit race-based student assignment policy, had jettisoned it seven years before that decision in favor of socioeconomic status.

Wake’s diversity efforts have been a bragging point for community leaders, and many parents share the same view.

Tanya Wolfram, a white mother of two living in Cary, was looking for a school with a year-round calendar when it was time to enroll her daughter Emerson in kindergarten. She had two choices, one school that was predominantly white and with 20 percent of students eligible for free- and reduced price lunches, and another with a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students, with a free-and-reduced price lunch rate of close to 50 percent.

Wolfram, who works for a community development organization in Durham, chose the more diverse school. She has remained happy with that choice, as Emerson, 7, starts 2nd grade.

“I went to a very diverse school, and diversity is important to me,” said Wolfram. And, when she visited the two schools while making her decision, the children at the school she ultimately picked just seemed happier.

“To me, their schooling is not just what they’re learning in the books, you know? The reality in our neighborhood is that it’s mostly white people, upper and middle-income. It doesn’t really reflect America.” Her daughter’s school, which enrolls students from outside the neighborhood, does reflect the makeup of the country more accurately, she said.

But the school board’s talk about balancing poverty rates among schools—and school board members have taken pains to say that no definitive school assignment plan is on the table yet—has stirred up anger among some community members.

“There’s community concern and concern by the board, and rightfully so. How we go about this will have huge implications in the community,” said Keith Sutton, one of the board’s two black members and a Democratic candidate for state superintendent of schools. “We know that some in the community are not happy. What we don’t want to see is see that pendulum swing back, when a board came in and reversed years of work that had been done.”

One idea currently under discussion is that schools should aim to be no more than 20 percentage points higher or lower than the countywide average of students receiving free-and-reduced-price lunches. Currently, that’s 32 percent, meaning schools should be in the 12 percent to 52 percent range. Right now, Wake County has schools where as few as 5 percent of students receive subsidized meals, and other schools where the subsidized meal rate is as high as 75 percent.

Parents Opting Out

It’s impossible to ignore that a growing number of parents are opting out of the school system entirely. The district had projected enrollment growth to be 2,000 students in the 2018-19 school year; instead it added only 42. School district consultants pinpointed a lower birth rate, along with increased enrollment in charters, private schools, and parents choosing to home school as the cause. More than 43,000 school-age children in Wake County attended private schools, home schools, or charter schools in the 2017-18 school year.

Wake County had 24 charter schools open in the 2018-19 school year, and more are coming. In an unsuccessful argument against the approval of two additional charter schools in the Wake Forest area, district Superintendent Cathy Q. Moore and Martin wrote a letter in June to the state’s Charter School Advisory Board warning of “de facto segregation in northeastern Wake County.”

Tanya Wolfram, of Cary, N.C., chose a racially diverse, year-round school outside her neighborhood for her child in part because the mostly white, upper-income school in her neighborhood “doesn’t really reflect America.”

The five charter schools already open in that area have a student population that is more than 80 percent white and Asian, Martin and Moore stated. In contrast, the enrollment of the traditional public schools in that area is about 50 percent white and Asian students, the letter says.

Angela Humphries, a fierce and frequent critic of the Wake County board, said school officials are missing the point that charter schools drive up competition and offer more freedom for parents. Her daughter Izzy, 12, started her school career in Wake County public schools before her parents switched her to a charter school. For the past three years, Humphries has been a home-schooling parent.

“I don’t think it’s helpful for parents to hear that if you’re in this area, you’re part of a segregation problem,” she said, referring to certain neighborhoods in the county. But, she said, the school board continually drops that ‘race card.’ ”

“I would love for spending to be reined in,” said Humphries, who is white. “I would not like for children to be sitting on a bus for an hour, or even 45 minutes. I don’t know if [school officials] ever sit down and work on why people want to leave.”

As for alleviating segregation, she said that she’s not sure that’s the business of schools. “Go talk to the people and see what they need. There might be people nearby who are willing to help, without having to tax the entire community year in and year out.”

Black Students Impacted Most

For all the work and controversy over Wake County’s diversity efforts, a recent study showed that it made little difference to the average student when the district was using family income as a more prominent part of its school assignment policy.

But one group of students was highly affected, the researchers found: poor black students who would have otherwise attended schools that were 75 percent or more minority.

The study, published in American Education Research Journal in June, looked specifically at one iteration of Wake County’s student assignment plan. For about 10 years, between 2000 and 2010, the district aimed to have schools where no more than 40 percent of students were eligible for subsidized lunches and no more than 25 percent were performing below grade level. The policy also aimed to have schools operating at no less than 85 percent or no more than 115 percent of capacity.

The researchers compared where students actually attended school to where they would have been assigned had they just enrolled in the school closest to them.

The researchers said that in a purely neighborhood-based assignment policy, black students from low-income families would have attended schools that were, on average, 14 percent white. Under the county’s policy of weighing socioeconomic diversity in assignments, they attended schools that were 38 percent white, on average, with higher levels of student achievement.

But stated another way, the burden of school reassignments for the sake of diversity was primarily borne by poor black students who were reassigned to schools out of their neighborhoods. “The effort to minimize reassignments among advantaged families was likely motivated by a desire to head off potential political opposition,” the researchers wrote.

That’s one reason why Letha Muhammad, a community advocate and mother of three, is reserving judgment on the board’s recent pronouncements. Muhammad, who is black, lives in southeast Raleigh, a historically black but rapidly gentrifying area.

Muhammad’s oldest daughter, Ramaiyah Robinson, who is 20 and a graduate of Wake County schools, was bused to a school about 20 minutes away from her neighborhood. “She was really a minority [in that school], and I was concerned about what that experience was going to be like for her.” As it turned out, there were times when she felt her daughter was treated differently by school administrators, but Muhammad said her regular presence at the school helped.

“I have a car. I can get there,” she said. “But I always think about the people who look like me who don’t have the privilege,” she said.

Her younger children, Samaiyah, a 16-year-old junior, and Siddeeq, a 13-year-old 8th grader, are enrolled in district magnet schools.

The school board must move forward by listening carefully to the families, including students, who might be most affected by any changes in school assignment policy, said Muhammad, the executive director of the Education Justice Alliance, a Raleigh organization working to dismantle “the school-to-prison and school-to-deportation pipeline.”

And school board members also need to build trust. “As a parent, and in speaking with other people, I do believe there’s some questions around history, and whether they have the best interests of brown and black students at heart” she said. “I believe black and brown parents need to be looked at as experts in their child’s experiences.”

It’s clear in Wake County, the questions are easier to come by than the answers.

Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher recently laid out the concerns at a meeting of the Cary Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses in the county’s second-largest city.

“Our community is browning. The median age is increasing. Birth rates are in decline, affordable housing cannot meet the demand,” said Fletcher, a real estate agent who is white. “Resegregation by race and socioeconomic status is growing, and our community vulnerabilities are increasing in severity and frequency.”

This dire situation is something that Fletcher said he learned himself, as he prepared for his presentation to the business leaders. “They haven’t realized this much change is happening this quickly across our county,” he said.

But, Fletcher added, “I’m not putting a solution on the table.” Rather, he said, the way to move forward is through community agreement. “It’s going to take more than the school district and nine board members to take this community and have it recognize that we’re going to have to do something together,” he said.

Martin, the school board chairman, said he considers himself a “realistic idealist” on the issue.

“I try not to just walk around with my head in the clouds,” he said. Whatever the district decides to do will require support from parents and the business community, which was one of the original drivers of integration in the region. It can’t just involve moving students around on buses, he said.

“Our board is very cognizant that we cannot just be a board of education that goes out and says ‘rah rah, we’re doing this.’ We have to make it a community effort.”

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Years of Work But Still Separated By Race


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