It wasn’t broken, but Wake County ‘fixed’ it | The Chronicle

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It wasn’t broken, but Wake County ‘fixed’ it | The Chronicle

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By Laura Keeley
March 29, 2010

Durham, North Carolina. It’s a real place, and we live here.

It is rather easy to forget, though, that Duke does not actually exist in a bubble—it’s part of a community, many communities in fact, and one of them is the Research Triangle that exists between Raleigh (Wake County), Chapel Hill (Orange County) and Durham (Durham County).

Alright, pop quiz time: How many of you are aware that a decision made by the Wake County school board last week is causing national uproar and has been blogged about by The Economist, written about in the Los Angeles Times, condemned by the NAACP and spotlighted on The Today Show? I’m going to go out on a limb and assume not many.

Here is the decision in a nutshell: Last Tuesday, the Wake County school board voted to end its socioeconomic diversity-based school assignment program that had existed since the 1970s. Now the board will move to neighborhood-based schools that will almost certainly leave lower-income students in the dust.

Wake’s diversity program has been hailed as a national model, and the American Association of School Administrators named then-superintendant Bill McNeal the National Superintendant of the Year in 2004. He has voiced his opposition to the new plan in the (Raleigh) News and Observer: “My fear… as I witness from the sidelines is that we’ll fall into the abyss with ‘have’ schools and ‘have-not schools,” he said in a March 21 article. “That breaks my heart that that could happen and would happen in Wake County schools.”

It is no secret that low-income schools struggle to perform at the same level as higher-income ones. The reasons are numerous, including the fact that low-income schools have trouble attracting high quality teachers, a higher teacher turnover and lower parental involvement at their schools and thus in their children’s education. In case the board members did not realize this, Charlotte County schools can provide a concrete example. Charlotte abandoned busing for diversity in favor of neighborhood schools in 2002. And surprise! The number of extremely high poverty schools has blossomed under the new policy.

“You don’t have to guess what Wake County will look like in four years,” Amy Nelson, a principal intern at a high poverty elementary school in Charlotte said at a panel discussion full of educational researches the Saturday before the vote. “You have a case study three hours down the road. It’s not pretty.”

Back in 1976, the Wake County school board realized what Charlotte knows now, and when Wake County and Raleigh City schools merged that year, the board sought to avoid creating these low-income schools.

The goal was to have no schools with more than 40 percent of its kids eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Wake County has experienced an explosion in population recently and as the number of low-income students has risen from 20 to 31 percent, that target has been forced to slip. There are currently nine elementary schools where more than 60 percent of its students are free- and reduced-lunch eligible. However, the other 150 schools have fewer eligible students, and no school is overwhelmed with low-income kids. Furthermore, suburban kids have the option of attending one of inner city Raleigh’s award-winning magnet schools that offer advanced education in topics such as math and science.

This was the status quo since before we undergraduates were born. Like I said, the district’s superintendant was named the best superintendant in the entire county in 2004 (in case all you private schoolers out there are unfamiliar with this concept, just trust me, it’s a big deal). Now the district does not even have a superintendant because Del Burns abruptly announced his resignation in February. He was placed on administrative leave in March by the board because he gave media interviews—in other words, he was transparent and explained himself to the taxpayers who fund his schools—voicing his opposition to the board’s plan to end diversity schools. Oh, and get this—the decision to oust Burns for speaking publically was made in a closed meeting, the third secret meeting the board had held since February. Ironic, no?

And one more thing: The district is implementing this complete systematic overhaul at a time when there is a $20 million funding gap for next school year. The cash situation in Wake County is so severe that the district had to sell $125.8 million worth of federal fixed-rate bonds for building projects. But making this fundamental structural change to neighborhood-based schools will need to be researched and planning costs money, right?

Or maybe they won’t spend any money and just kind of shoot from the hip. That would seem about par for the course.

The catalyst for all of this (I’m assuming that you, like me, cannot see an obvious one) is the new right-wing school board majority that was elected in 2009. School board elections are held in off years, mainly to ensure that only people who care enough vote, so last year four new school board members, all Republicans, were voted in and changed the majority. They were voted in by 4.5 percent of the county’s electorate. Yep, four school board members, voted in by a whopping 4.5 percent of voters, combined with a fifth Republican board member to say “screw you diversity!” and destroyed a national model of public school success. In its place, Wake will set up a “have” versus “have-not” school system, right in the backyard of one of the most elite educational institutions in this country.

Laura Keeley is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Monday.


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