Education Funding

Backers of Economic Integration Win in Wake County, N.C.

By Jeff Archer — November 15, 2005 4 min read
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Supporters of a policy in Wake County, N.C., that seeks to integrate the district’s schools based on family income levels celebrated the outcome of school board elections last week.

Despite organized opposition, two candidates who back the policy won seats on the nine-member board in the Nov. 8 runoff. Their victories continue a six-person majority in support of the economic-integration effort.

“It means that the public in these two [parts of the district] approves of the direction that our system is moving in,” said Eleanor Goettee, one of the two winning candidates. “We’re not backing away and trying to undo what has been done.”

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Debate had intensified in recent weeks over the district’s nationally known, 5-year-old practice of assigning students to schools so as to limit the concentration of poverty at any one school. Candidates questioning the policy were backed by a parents’ group, Assignment By Choice, and an evangelical Christian organization, Called2Action.

Meanwhile, the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit organization led by business and civic leaders, appealed to voters to support continuation of the student-assignment system. Disagreement over the policy was heightened by a recent, largely favorable front-page story in The New York Times.

In 2000, the Wake County district set the goal of having no school in which more than 40 percent of students are eligible for subsidized lunches under federal guidelines. District leaders also said no more than 25 percent of a school’s enrollment should be composed of students scoring below grade level on state tests.

The district uses magnet schools to draw suburban students into the Raleigh area, and year-round schools to attract city students to the system’s outlying areas, with family income factoring into a child’s chances of getting into either type of school.

The district also takes family-income levels into account when making changes to attendance zones for assigned schools. All but 32 of 133 schools are under the 40 percent poverty threshold.

Robert Saffold, the president of the Wake Education Partnership, argues that the integration policy has played a key role in the district’s success. With 120,000 students, Wake County is the highest-performing large district in the state.

“The body of national research is pretty clear that once a school community reaches a certain level of poverty concentration, there are deleterious schoolwide effects on student achievement, on teacher recruitment and retention, on parent involvement, and on overall school climate,” Mr. Saffold said.

Tales of Two Districts

Many point to North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, where the concentration of poor and minority students increased dramatically in many urban schools after racial-integration efforts ceased in 2002, as offering a cautionary tale.

Student performance in 10 Charlotte high schools is so low that last summer, the North Carolina education department sent in teams of specialists to began working on turning them around. Countywide support for the 124,000-student district has wavered, and the political scene has become fractious, with parts of the district threatening to secede.

A blue-ribbon panel of Charlotte civic leaders has hired consultants to recommend ways to get the district back on track. Their report is due next month.

“There’s been increasing concern that we could go the way of Charlotte in very short period of time,” said John Dornan, the president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a think tank based in Raleigh.

Critics of Wake County’s student-assignment policies say claims of their benefits are overblown. They note that the district has a lower percentage of students living in poverty than the state’s other big districts, and that it serves a highly educated population, with many residents working in what is known as the Research Triangle.

Cynthia Matson, the president of Assignment By Choice, said that district leaders stress that only about 6 percent of students are reassigned to different schools solely for integration. Most integration is accomplished through school choice programs, such as the magnet schools.

“On the one hand, they say we don’t bus many kids for diversity,” Ms. Matson said. “But on the other, they say diversity is the reason we’re doing so well.”

Dave Duncan, the group’s vice president, said members aren’t against the goal of integrating by family income, but want parents to have more say over where their children go to school.

“We always felt it shouldn’t be the Holy Grail,” he said of the diversity goals. “It should be balanced against stability.”

Even with the outcome of last week’s election, many say the Wake County school board will be rethinking the way it assigns students to schools. The district is growing by several thousand students annually. Already, most reassignments are due to growth and space limits, not economic-integration efforts.

Ms. Goettee said she’s open to considering changes in how the district determines which schools students can attend, so long as efforts still are made to avoid high concentrations of students at risk of academic failure. “All of us are wanting to minimize bus time,” she said. “But the commitment to keep schools balanced overrides everything else to me.”

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