A school board in North Carolina has ended its innovative policy increasing diversity in its schools; students may end up paying the highest price.
North Carolina’s history of racial tension, rooted in slavery and a century of state-mandated discrimination that followed, is a lengthy one. Generations as recent as the baby boomers recall the moments their schools went from segregated to integrated or when their parents refused to allow friends of other races over to play.
Ten years ago, however, Wake County, N.C.—which includes 13 cities, including Raleigh, the state capital—became a model of racial progress toward which states around the country looked for inspiration. In 2000, the Wake County school board decided to end its program of busing students to faraway schools based on their races; instead, it would bus to mix students of differing socioeconomic statuses, ultimately resulting in both racial and class diversity.
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When the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that race can no longer serve as the deciding factor toward determining where to send students, school districts across the country began emulating Wake County’s diversity policy, as it was already in full swing and considered a success by education policy experts. As an Enloe High School student told NPR, “Every day, just by entering my school doors at 7 a.m., I get to experience people who have backgrounds completely different from me, who have experienced things that I’ve never seen.” An Enloe High School graduate, Brooke Driver, explained that she experienced “culture shock” when she entered Enloe. In middle school, she said, she “was used to being one of few Caucasians in comparison to African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Arriving at Enloe, I met some of the smartest people from all sorts of different cultures, and really got to learn about people of other nationalities and races.” Driver said she left Enloe with “a welcomed new outlook on the world.”
But on March 23, the Wake County school board ruled to completely dismantle its groundbreaking policy. In a five-to-four vote along party lines, the school board decided to phase out its diversity policy in favor of assigning students to their neighborhood schools. Tired of sending their children out of their neighborhoods, some parents voted this more conservative school board in to office during last November’s elections. These angry parents are, for the most part, middle class, suburban, and white.
Local education policy experts predict that this new plan, which is reliant on new neighborhood community assignment zones, will return North Carolina’s schools to the “old South.” In other words, the schools will become re-segregated.
In many other parts of North Carolina, where neighborhood school zoning has been instituted, this trend toward re-segregation has already begun. In Goldsboro, N.C. for instance, a city in the eastern part of the state, two nearby districts possess vastly different student populations with vastly divergent results. In the state’s central district, almost all of the students are black (four out of the 2,100 are white), with a graduation rate of less than 50 percent. By contrast, a nearby high school consisting of 90 percent white students boasts a graduation rate of almost 90 percent. These schools also reflect a segregation of socioeconomic status: the primarily African American school is also primarily poor, while the other is middle class.
According to John Tedesco, a newly elected school board member who supports the elimination of the diversity policy, Wake County currently does not support its lower income students to the extent that it could under the new paradigm. “I think now it’s time we start educating those children instead of hiding them and shuffling,” he says. “That’s the deal. I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating them. We have to close the achievement gap; 54 percent graduation rate among economically disadvantaged children is not good enough.”
Despite Tedesco’s fears, a report put out by the UNC state college system indicates that, since at least 1990, Wake County schools have had high levels of achievement. “[Wake County Public School System] graduates were more successful at gaining admission and making academic progress at the member institutions of the UNC system than was true for graduates of other North Carolina high schools,” it said. A local education policy think tank counters Tedesco, as well, asserting that this new plan will create fifteen high poverty schools; none exist today. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University all recently presented studies noting that high poverty schools attract less experienced and less effective teachers and administrators, thereby decreasing student achievement even further.
Other research shows that the futures of students are molded and influenced by those around them, by their peers, parents, teachers, or friends. School in particular offers a unique opportunity to bring people of disparate backgrounds together to learn from one another. As stated in a brief from the United States Commission on Human Rights entitled “The Benefits of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Elementary and Secondary Education,” “In simple terms, our elementary and secondary public schools are the beginning of the educational pipeline, which leads to higher education, jobs in the private sector, jobs in the public sector, and careers in the military. The importance of diversity in those sectors is of direct relevance to how we define and value diversity in elementary and secondary education.”
In Wake County, a place of homogeneous neighborhoods, the discontinuation of busing will almost undoubtedly result in homogeneous schools, a disaster for the county’s students. Because while cultural diversity shouldn’t be the main focus of education, many experts agree that it should be an integral part of the experience. As the Supreme Court articulated in its Brown v. Board of Education ruling, “Today [education] is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.” In Wake County, they will start on a new path of cultural values.
Alison Grady is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is majoring in Peace, War & Defense and minoring in Philosophy, Politics & Economics and Women’s Studies.