Equity & Diversity

Wake County, N.C., May Raise Cap on Poor Students

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 05, 2007 3 min read
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Education leaders in Wake County, N.C., may soon ease the student-assignment plan that has drawn the spotlight as a national model for ensuring diversity in public schools without using race and ethnicity.

Later this month, the board of education for the 134,000-student district, which includes the city of Raleigh, is expected to vote to raise the cap on the number of poor children who can be enrolled in any one school.

Since 2000, school leaders have used family income when making some school assignments to keep the proportion of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals to no more than 40 percent in each of Wake County’s public schools.

The proposed revision calls for raising the cap to 50 percent. Rapid growth in the district in the past decade, including an influx of Latino immigrants, has driven up the number of low-income students from about 20 percent of the district’s total enrollment to roughly 27 percent. That shift, school leaders said, has made it more difficult to keep all campuses from exceeding the 40 percent poverty ceiling.

Last school year, 37 of the district’s 147 schools had concentrations of poor children above that level.

“This policy has worked very well for us, and raising the target is really to reflect the fact that our demographics are changing countywide,” said Susan K. Parry, the Wake County board member who chairs the policy committee that will vote on the measure before it goes to the full board.

“It would be a mistake to assume that it reflects a lessened commitment to maintaining balance in our schools,” she added.

Dave Duncan, a parent activist who has been a critic of Wake County’s student-assignment policy, said raising the ceiling on lowincome students to 50 percent may help the district bring more schools into compliance, but will do nothing to address what he views as the real shortcomings of the program.

What Research Shows

“I think Wake County is a paper tiger,” said Mr. Duncan, who has three children enrolled in the school system. “They’ve touted the socioeconomic assignments as central to the success of the district,” he said, “when, in reality, they bus a very small number of children for that purpose.”

“No one presses them on that data,” he added, “so what they end up getting recognized for is the philosophy behind the policy, and the noble intent of what they are doing.”

Roughly 6 percent of the district’s pupils are assigned to schools expressly for achieving family-income balance, Ms. Parry said. She cited the district’s magnet schools and carefully drawn assignment boundaries as being just as vital to promoting demographic diversity.

“Socioeconomic assignment is only one piece we use to bring balance to our schools,” she said.

The district’s assignment policy also seeks to limit the proportion of students who have scored below grade level on state tests to no more than 25 percent per school, Ms. Barry said.

When the district adopted the policy seven years ago to replace race-based student assignments, its leaders cited national research that indicated a sharp increase in the negative impact of poverty on achievement at schools where the numbers of poor children had reached a certain point. Forty percent was the most frequently cited figure.

“We were guided to the 40 percent number both by what the research told us and in recognition of what we were dealing with in our population at the time,” Ms. Parry said. “Much of the research I know of cites beyond 50 percent as the point at which you will begin to see a negative effect.”

White students are the district’s majority at 54 percent, black students comprise 27 percent, Latinos are 10 percent, Asian-Americans are 5 percent, and mixed-raced students are 4 percent.

At least 40 districts around the country use family income to help make school assignments. That number is likely to rise since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 28 ruling striking down race-based assignment plans in the Jefferson County, Ky., and Seattle districts, said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

A supporter of mixing poor and middle-class students to raise overall achievement, Mr. Kahlenberg said that the change being considered by Wake County is “perfectly reasonable.”

“The research finds that schools really go downhill when the numbers go above 75 percent low-income,” he said. “What they are considering is not a setback in any sense.”

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