Equity & Diversity

Broad Effort to Mix Students by Wealth Under Fire in N.C.

By Alan Richard — May 22, 2002 10 min read
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Feeling pressed by the courts and the threat of a lawsuit, the schools here in Wake County decided to go colorblind.

Leaders of this 101,000-student district, which includes Raleigh and its suburbs, decided in 1999 to make Wake County the nation’s largest school system to integrate its students by wealth, rather than by race.

They changed local policy after a federal court scrapped race-based student busing in Charlotte, N.C., 150 miles to the southwest, figuring that the district had better take race out of its desegregation plan, or face a legal battle of its own.

“We just got out of the race business,” said Ramey L. Beavers, the senior director for student assignment in Wake County.

Spreading out poor children for whom learning can be more challenging and placing them with more affluent peers is justified by Wake’s results, officials here say. More than eight in 10 students perform at grade level or higher, as measured by state tests—and those numbers are up in almost every grade and subject up over the last three years. It’s a level of achievement and rate of improvement that few urban school systems can match.

But as a recent protest outside the Wake County school headquarters shows, the political realities of making this type of integration work are daunting. The voices of parents in Raleigh’s booming suburbs are growing louder, calling for their schools to take a different approach.

Suburban parents argue that the policy trumps their ability to decide where their children should attend school. They want their children in schools closer to home, and they’ve only begun to fight.

Lib McGowan, a parent from the Wake County town of Apex, N.C., and one of the parents who protested the reassignment of their children, has helped start an organization that seeks to change the way the district integrates its schools.

“Diversity by choice is a good thing,” Ms. McGowan said, expressing the sentiment of some suburban parents here. “Diversity by forced busing is not.”

Other school districts that have chosen a similar path to Wake’s will be watching the debate here closely. The San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., school districts both in recent months have undertaken student-integration plans that include family income—as determined by the percentage of students who receive government help to pay for their meals at school—as a way to assign students.

La Crosse, Wis., pioneered the policy in the early 1990s when that city saw an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants. (“La Crosse to Push Ahead With Income-Based Busing Plan,” Aug. 5, 1992.)

“I don’t think it’s controversial to say that students do better in a middle- class setting,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington and the author of a book on integration and school choice. “The controversy comes in when you get into the question of, how does one achieve economically integrated schools?”

Ambitious Goals

The stated goal in Wake County is for none of its schools to be saddled with poverty.

That is more than a modest challenge in this economically mixed district, in which about 25 percent of students receive government help in paying for their meals. The bottom line, explained Mr. Beavers, is that the district wants none of its schools to have more than 40 percent of its students receiving government help in paying for their school meals.

Mr. Beavers acknowledged that Wake County is falling short of that goal.

That is because the district’s plan has its limits, he said. Twelve of the district’s 122 schools last year topped that 40 percent poverty mark, either because parents convinced the school board not to approve the transfer of children or because there was no way to balance the numbers without busing students for an hour or more across the county. Students from poorer families get moved the most, district leaders concede.

And reaching its goals seems to be getting only more difficult for the district.

Last fall, the district suggested revisions to its assignment plan that would have required about 5,200 students to switch schools in fall 2002, based on their families’ incomes.

Then came the protests and neighborhood complaints over the plan, which forced the school board to revise those recommendations. So instead, a far more modest 2,200 student assignments for this coming fall will be determined by income.

While the wealth-based assignment policy replaced one that considered race, district officials stress that they are not using wealth as a proxy for race. Integration by wealth also has the potential to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of schools here because higher percentages of African-American and other minority families are poor.

Sixty percent of Wake County’s students are white, 26 percent are black, and the rest are mostly Asian-American, Hispanic, or Native American, in that order.

However, given the political and logistical realities facing the student-assignment policy, it’s not clear how rigorous the district will be about enforcing its method of mixing the financial haves and have-nots in the future.

“We need a model of a school system that can make it happen,” said John N. Dornan, the president and executive director of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Public School Forum and an authority on education policy in the state. “I think the road will get tougher in the future—not easier.”

A Shift in Power

Tougher, indeed.

Two dozen picketers from the town of Apex gathered outside the Wake County schools headquarters in March, waving signs and showing their displeasure with the wealth-based integration plan and its impact on their families.

They were drawn into the integration debate last November by Mr. Beavers’ recommended revisions to the plan. One of the changes would have sent 100 children from Apex Elementary School—a charming old building that once was the county’s all-black high school—to Swift Creek Elementary School, about six miles away.

Some of the Apex parents were outraged, complaining such a change would be unfair after they had bought homes near the area’s most reputable schools. They organized, raised hot cotton at school board meetings, and picketed outside the Wake County schools’ headquarters.

“For reassignment to be based on some arbitrary, elusive goal is absolutely wrongheaded,” said Keith H. Weatherly, the mayor of Apex, who joined parents at the protests.

Mr. Weatherly and some other suburban parents here say they prefer “community schools” close to home—rather than being forced to send their children elsewhere so the district can meet its economic-diversity goals.

They’re also uneasy about further changes in where children are assigned for school: Leaders of the school system acknowledge that children might be required to switch schools more than once during their elementary school years, because neighborhoods change, growth continues, and the district makes adjustments to prevent schools from having too many children from poorer families.

Those complaints have grown louder in recent years, as the population—and political power—of Raleigh’s boomtown suburbs have grown. For instance, the town of Cary had fewer than 10,000 residents in 1990, but today has shed its sleepiness and seen its population soar to more than 100,000. Apex also has grown, from a population of 5,000 a decade ago to about 27,000 today.

Mayor Weatherly contends that keeping students in their local communities makes good sense, and that if the courts don’t want schools to use race as a factor when assigning students, then quality counts more than diversity.

“A good education anywhere you live,” he said. “I believe that’s possible.”

The final resolution to the dispute disappointed Mr. Beavers and other educators here: The Wake County school board took the parents’ side. The Apex children were allowed to stay in their neighborhood schools.

The move even prompted some district officials to wonder if this was the beginning of the end of wealth-based integration.

Lingering Feelings

Melanie Rhoads is the principal at Swift Creek Elementary School, where the Apex children would have been sent. Built on the site of an old country school, the attractive, two-story building sits beside the creek for which it was named.

Several weeks back, there was bad blood in that water. Ms. Rhoads said the things some Apex parents said about her school were infuriating.

“We were really drug through the mud for no good reason,” Ms. Rhoads said. “They were saying it about my staff, and they were saying it about my students, and I was offended, and I still am.”

Her school has changed, it’s true. Ms. Rhoads said the district made the school less attractive to parents when it didn’t fully consider the impact of changing some attendance boundaries two years ago when a new school opened down the road. Most of the school’s more affluent, white parents were reassigned, including the woman who had just been elected PTA president at Swift Creek.

In photo albums on a table in the school office, there are plenty more African-American students in the most recent class pictures than in photos from two years ago.

The one-two punch of the new local school and some families’ departures for year-round and magnet schools has left Swift Creek with many students who ride buses here from tougher neighborhoods across town. Moving some students from Apex was an attempt at balancing the population.

Even so, the academic picture here is better than the impression left by the Apex parents. Three out of four Swift Creek students do grade-level work, and next year’s goal is 80 percent.

On a tour of her school, Ms. Rhoads strode into the busy cafeteria at lunchtime. Children set down their trays of tacos and peaches, and lined up for unrehearsed hugs. “It’s just like everybody else’s elementary school cafeteria,” Ms. Rhoads felt the need to say.

‘The Right Thing to Do’

School leaders will have to be creative but firm in order to withstand the forces that threaten to pull Wake County away from its integration plan, people here suggest.

Ms. McGowan, one of the parents who lobbied for the Apex children to stay near their homes for school, and other parents aren’t finished yet.

They’ve started two groups—complete with their own Web sites—and they hope to push Wake County to do away with wealth-based integration and simply assign children to neighborhood schools.

Wake County schools Superintendent William R. McNeal contends that approach wouldn’t work.

“We could never build all the schools they want in their neighborhoods. They couldn’t afford it and will choose not to afford it,” he said. “Mathematically, not all of the students in some regions of our county could attend the closest schools.”

“As I look at the housing patterns in our community, we would resegregate our schools,” he added. “I grew up in a separate but supposedly equal environment, when it was the law of the land. It was separate but it certainly wasn’t equal.”

Meanwhile, Caroline Massengill, the senior director overseeing Wake County’s magnet schools, said the magnets must attract more students from the newer, more distant suburbs into the city. A new, museum-based magnet school opening this year in downtown Raleigh may help.

Ms. Massengill, who is white, believes her own daughters benefited from Wake County’s diversity. One of her daughters, she said, counted an African-American boy, a girl from India, and a student from Vietnam among her friends in high school.

“We’ve got to figure out how we can help people new to this city understand why this is good for them,” Ms. Massengill said of the push for diverse enrollments.

Districts that pursue the same path as Wake County would do well to make integration-by- wealth more appealing to parents, said Mr. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation.

“If we’re going to get there, you have to build incentives into the system for middle-class families,” he said.

Superintendent McNeal hopes to involve more PTAs as he tries to sustain the student-assignment plan. He also plans to speak at houses of worship.

“Anyone who thinks this is easy— this is not easy,” he said. “It is very, very emotional in any community, but it is the right thing to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Broad Effort to Mix Students by Wealth Under Fire in N.C.

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