July 16, 2010

Wake County, North Carolina is an example of a situation where policy that sounds great in theory has, in reality, worked to re-segregate one of the most desegregated school districts in the nation.

Under the guise of creating "neighborhood schools", the Wake County school board ended its diversity policy at the end of the last school year, and with it, the desegregation of schools in the Wake County area.

Wake County school board member John Tedesco made a presentation Friday about his vision for the community assignment plan and why he says it works. Tedesco has stressed it will allow parents more choice and will take about nine to 15 months before the final makeup for the new schools zones will be finalized.

For now it's just a vision that John Tedesco hopes will be crafted into a plan for neighborhood schools.

But that vision looked like this to other school board members:

School Board member Ann McLaurin said she is happy to have a starting point, but is not seeing Tedesco's vision clearly.

"What I saw was a map that had zones with real poverty in them, with real economic and racial segregation, and there wasn't an explanation about how we're going to do that differently," McLaurin said.

Their action precipitated the resignation of the superintendent, sparked protests by students, and has opened a deep, wide rift in the community.

In the end, one of the contributing factors has to be what has been called "the age of forgetting".

With 140,000 students in 160 schools, Wake County was the largest of about 70 districts across the nation using socio-economic status to maintain diversity. The system was considered a model for those looking for a way around race-based assignment scheme rejected by the courts.

"It (the Wake County system) really was a beacon, a flag around which more and more people were rallying as they saw the positive effects of this," says sociologist Gerald Grant, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University and author of the book "Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh."

But some parents grew tired of sending their children off on long bus rides. Others said the policy may have brought whites and blacks together, but it wasn't really helping blacks educationally.

And there are those who say people forgot how bad the bad old days were.

"For folks who were there and lived through it, there's a real sense of a collective forgetting, a collective amnesia," says James Leloudis, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was in high school when the county system integrated. "There is a kind of tragic disremembering."

Part of the story is that Wake County is increasingly populated by people who did not grow up here and do not feel the tug or burden of that history. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of Wake County's residents were born outside North Carolina.

"The population shift is HUGE," says Grant, who briefly taught at a Raleigh high school while researching his book. "You had folks moving down there from Lexington, Mass., and buying a $275,000 house, and they thought a white school came with it. But when they got down there, they found their kids were getting on a bus." [read more...]

One of the striking visuals in this story is the racial makeup of the school board. It's nearly all white, with only one black member. While accusations fly around about "yankees infiltrating", it's equally clear that the idea of "neighborhood schools" is really a stalking horse for homogenized school populations.

In 2010, it's quite sad to me to see 1950's segregation anywhere, but especially in a school district renowned for its diversity and desegregated schools. Sadder still is the prospect that what has begun in Wake County could spread to other school districts like a deadly virus.

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