Disintegration: Tea Party-Backed Republican School Board Abolishes Successful Integration Policy

Stephen Colbert’s brilliant summary is funny, insightful… and duly mocking:


The Tea Party-backed Republican majority on The Wake County Board of Education in Raleigh, NC, has thrown out one of the nation’s most celebrated integration efforts. In the 1970s, city and suburban districts were merged into a single, sprawling 800 mile district that set out to achieve racial integration. In 2000 the policy shifted to an economic integration goal. The district tried to achieve its diversity goals through a mix of assignments and choice.

Dana Goldstein, who notes that American schools are more segregated by race and class today than they were on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, explains how it works:

The Wake County program located high-achieving, themed magnet schools within poor neighborhoods, and opened them up to any interested student. For each seat at the magnet school occupied by a middle class or affluent kid from across town, an inner city child was given the opportunity to bus to the neighborhood school the wealthier kid would have attended, if he hadn’t chosen the magnet instead. Such schemes are known in wonk world as “voluntary intra-district transfer programs,” and in many of the cities where they exist (such as Milwaukee, Hartford, and Seattle), they are popular and vastly oversubscribed.

Colbert notes that a survey of 40,000 Wake County parents found 94.5% were satisfied or very satisfied. But new residents in outlying suburbs were unhappy. Backed by Art Pope — the archconservative political operative who makes millions selling cheap dreck at discount stores is one of the most influential benefactors of conservative causes and Republican politics in North Carolina — a bloc of school board candidates who railed against “forced busing” won the Board majority in the Fall of 2010. They immediately began dismantling the integration policy:

“This is Raleigh in 2010, not Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s – my life is integrated,” said John Tedesco, a new board member. “We need new paradigms.” …

“Basically, all the problems have roots in the diversity policy,” said Kathleen Brennan, who formed a parent group to challenge the system. “There was just this constant shuffling every year.” She added: “These people are patting themselves on the back and only 54 percent of [poor] kids are graduating. And I’m being painted a racist. But isn’t it racist to have low expectations?”

As she and others have delved deeper, they’ve found that qualified minority students are underenrolled in advanced math classes, for instance, a problem that school officials said they’ve known about for years, but that strikes many parents as revelatory. Some have even come to see the diversity policy as a kind of profiling that assumes poor kids are more likely to struggle.

As if diversity-as-profiling isn’t perverse enough, Tedesco and Pope make the ridiculous argument (see Colbert above!) that concentrating the poor could help them:

“If we end up with a concentration of students underperforming academically, it may be easier to reach out to them,” he said. “Hypothetically, we should consider that as well.”

The NAACP and others have criticized that as separate-but-equal logic.

“It’s not as if this is a new idea, ‘Let’s experiment and see what happens when poor kids are put together in one school,’ ” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that advocates for economic integration. “We know. The results are almost always disastrous.”

Many local leaders see another irony in the possible balkanization of the county’s schools at a time when society is becoming more interconnected than ever.

“People want schools that mirror their neighborhood, but the bigger picture is my kid in the suburbs is connected to kids in Raleigh,” said the Rev. Earl Johnson, pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh. “We’re trying to connect to the world but we’re separating locally? There is something wrong.”

That southern Baptist minister is exactly right. Lynn Parramore, an ardent backer of the diversity program, came out of the Wake County schools:

Far-sighted leaders understood that schools with large concentrations of poor children have trouble keeping good teachers, and that the quality of education diminishes – along with students’ dreams of a better future.

Shuffling and reassignments continued to vex students and families with the new policy. I know first-hand what these inconveniences are like, having attended seven different public schools K-12. My parents didn’t like to see me enduring long bus rides. But they knew that there was something happening in their city that was even more important than the inconveniences. A terrible and traumatic divide was slowly healing. And more children were getting a shot at the American Dream.

While Arne Duncan wrote a letter chiding the Wake County district for dismantling the program, Goldstein is disappointed with Obama:

The problem is that Arne Duncan's words of support for the Wake County integration plan have never been backed up by Obama administration policy. Neither of the Department of Education's two big school reform grant programs–Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation–provide any funding at all for districts that wish to pursue magnet school-driven integration as a reform tool. And make no mistake–integration is one of the most powerful school reform tools in the kit. 

Don’t count on the courts. The blame for the re-segregation of America rests squarely with them.

Here’s local reaction to the Colbert segment:

one person not laughing is June Atkinson, superintendent of the North Carolina Board of Education.

“We need to have a stable Wake County school system where the wonderful teachers and administrators in this county have the support, the backing and the innovative thoughts from our local board of education,” she said.

The local business community is also concerned, says Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

The Board of Ed and the Chamber of Commerce. Maybe there’s hope for diversity yet.

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