More than a year after dismantling a student-assignment policy based on socioeconomic diversity and setting off a wave of reaction that drew national attention, the Wake County, N.C., school board took a step last week that may turn down the temperature of the intense debate.
The board, which has been deeply split on an assignment plan for the 143,000-student district, decided on Feb. 15 to hand the matter over to Superintendent Anthony J. Tata, who joined the district less than a month ago. But Mr. Tata won’t have to start from scratch. Among the plans he and a committee will weigh is one crafted by local business groups that would offer a controlled form of school choice to parents.
That plan would grandfather in current assignments and allow a student to stay put for the length of the grade span at his or her school. Assignments would also give a strong preference to keeping siblings together, and to allowing children to attend schools close to where they live.
But the proposal would also allow the district to steer parents to certain choices based on their children’s academic achievement, to avoid having schools with a high concentration of students who have performed poorly on state standardized tests.
Mr. Tata has said he plans to have a proposal back to the school board for approval by late spring, with plans for it to go into effect in the 2012-13 school year.
Board members who supported the old socioeconomic-diversity policy, as well as those who wanted to move to a new way of assigning students to schools, have offered tentative support to the proposal, a signal that it would find a receptive audience after the staff review.
“It’s a very interesting first step,” school board member Anne McLaurin, a supporter of the socioeconomic-diversity policy, told the Raleigh News & Observer newspaper when the plan was released Feb. 11. “It has a lot of data and a lot of well-thought-out research.”
In an interview with Education Week, John Tedesco, a school board member and one of the most outspoken opponents of the old student-assignment policy, said the new plan is “probably about 80 to 90 percent of what we were wanting all along.”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “that didn’t get heard as much as the noise.”
That “noise” has included community protests, like one on Feb. 12 with 800 people marching to the state Capitol here in Raleigh. The rally brought together several groups, including those opposed to the school board’s decision to do away with the socioeconomic-diversity busing plan.
The Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which took part in that demonstration, has filed complaints against the school system, triggering an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.
Meanwhile, Advanced, the organization that accredits the district’s high schools, has representatives in Wake County conducting an accreditation review that was also prompted by the controversy.
The school-assignment battle in Wake County has been rendered in starkly racial terms. Supporters of the old student-assignment policy said racism was driving the opposition. They believe eliminating socioeconomics as a factor in placement meant some schools in the county would end up more poor and less racially and ethnically diverse.
“This is designed to take the South and the country backwards at the time that we want to move forwards,” said Benjamin T. Jealous, the president of the NAACP, who traveled to Raleigh to attend the protest march.
Jill Hinton, a Wake County parent who also participated in the rally, said that board members opposed to the old policy “may not be racist, but they are creating policies that make their institutions racist, without even meaning to.” Last year, Ms. Hinton’s 17-year old son, Seth Keel, was arrested along with other Wake County residents for refusing to leave the podium during a school board meeting on the school-assignment policy.
Those who wanted to do away with the old policy said that educational stability and neighborhood schools were their goal. Also, they said, the old student-assignment policy, first adopted in 2000, allowed students who were low-performing to be spread out among several schools, giving the impression that all the schools were performing well when individual groups of students were still lagging.
“No study over 11 years has shown any kind of increased achievement” for low-income students, said Patrice Lee, a co-founder of Wake CARES, a group that has been critical of the diversity policy. A recent article in the News & Observer noted that 66 percent of low-income students in the state graduated in 2009-10, compared with 59 percent of low-income students in Wake County.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Ms. Lee said. “You can’t say you’re busing to give [low-income students] a better opportunity if they’re not getting it.”
Wake County had long been known for having a student-assignment policy that strived for racial and economic balance. Starting in the 1970s and continuing through 1999, the school board explicitly used race as a factor in balancing school enrollments. The district created a network of magnet schools to entice parents to move into schools that might otherwise be low-performing.
In 2000, the district shifted from using race to using socioeconomic status as a factor in assigning students to schools. The goal was to avoid having schools with high concentrations of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches—a standard indicator of families’ socioeconomic status—because such schools tend to have higher teacher and administrator turnover and lower academic achievement.
But in a district that was growing by thousands of students each year, the assignment policy meant that some students faced enrolling in a new school every year or were being shifted to schools far from home. Other students were placed in year-round schools established to alleviate overcrowding, a measure that led to more angry parents.
In 2009, buoyed by voter discontent over the policy and backed by conservative organizations in the community, four new members were elected to the nine-person school board. The new members were all Republicans, though school board races in the district are non-partisan.
In March 2010, on a party-line vote, the new board voted 5-4 to do away with using socioeconomic status as a factor in school placement. The Republican members of the board voted to end the policy; the Democratic members voted to preserve it.
Mr. Tedesco, a newly elected Republican member of the board, was put in charge of a school board committee responsible for developing a new assignment policy. But in October, Debra Goldman broke with her fellow Republican members of the board and sided with four Democrats to scrap the committee’s proposed plan and start over.
As the board has struggled, the rhetoric has grown so heated that it has drawn attention from national media organizations. Some said that the fight was emblematic of tea party conservatives flexing their muscle; Mr. Tedesco spoke in April at a tea party rally at the state Capitol, saying that voters had said “enough to the social engineers.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the matter in a January letter to the editor in The Washington Post, saying “America’s strength has always been a function of its diversity, so it is troubling to see North Carolina’s Wake County school board take steps to reverse a long-standing policy to promote racial diversity in its schools.”
The dispute even made it to the cable-TV comedy circuit, with satirist Stephen Colbert poking fun at the district.
Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, based at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that Wake County is unusual in that the debate has turned so bitterly political, and that there’s such a strong movement locally in favor of the diversity policy.
Maintaining some form of diversity in public education systems became increasingly challenging for districts nationwide after 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using race as the primary factor in assigning students to schools violates the U.S. Constitution. Since then, several districts, including Chicago and Pittsburgh, have switched to Wake County’s previous model of using socioeconomic status in making school assignments.
Parents say they want their children in diverse schools, but often they have desires that are in conflict, Mr. Orfield said.
“They want community schools, and they want to have all sorts of great programs right near their homes,” he said.
The policy that may ultimately be adopted comes from the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Educational Partnership, which serves as a liaison between the school system and the business community.
The plan would offer parents a choice of 10 elementary schools, five middle schools, and five high schools. The first, and strongest, factor in determining students’ school assignments would be stability: Parents would be able to keep their children at the schools they currently attend. A district-conducted poll of parents last year showed that despite the furor, 94.5 percent liked their current schools.
The plan also proposes having no more than 30 percent of students performing below grade level assigned to any one school, but says there is no need to create a specific achievement quota. The district would control this balance through the school choices that it offers to parents.
“The business community wanted to create a different tone for the discussion. We wanted to take the politics out of it,” said C. Steve Parrott, the president of the Wake Educational Partnership.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Cooling Signs in Wake Debate