This was written by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, writes about education, equal opportunity and civil rights. This appeared on the foundation’s blog.
By Richard D. Kahlenberg
School board elections in Wake County (Raleigh) North Carolina delivered an important victory for proponents of integration last week as Democrats swept four of five contested school board seats and led substantially in a fifth race headed for a runoff. Most importantly, board chairman Ron Margiotta, who had led the effort to dismantle a nationally acclaimed socioeconomic school integration plan in North Carolina’s largest school district, was defeated, denying conservatives a majority on the nine-member school board.
The vote has national significance because it demonstrates that if school diversity policies are pursued through choice, rather than compulsion, they can draw strong public support.
Wake County’s widely lauded school integration plan sought to give all students a chance to attend solidly middle-class public schools by limiting the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at 40% in any one school.
The plan came under attack, however, as tremendous population growth meant that increasing numbers of students had to be reassigned each year, a small proportion to meet the diversity guidelines. In 2009, Republicans, with the help of wealthy conservative backers, won a majority on the school board. In a recent New Yorker article , Jane Mayer provided a vivid portrait of a conservative multimillionaire, Art Pope, who is remaking North Carolina politics and was a key figure in the 2009 Wake County school board elections.
The Wake County saga easily could have ended there, with a movement toward segregated neighborhood schools. But instead, following the conservative takeover, civil rights leaders led protests in support of the socioeconomic integration plan and filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Stephen Colbert mocked tea party supporters of school re-segregation. And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in with support for the integration plan.
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce, which believed segregated schools are bad for education and for business, backed a compromise proposal devised by educator Michael Alves to employ choice to promote integration by student achievement levels, a close cousin of socioeconomic status. Teachers, who know they can do a much better job in integrated rather than high-poverty school environments, actively supported pro-integration candidates in the recent campaign.
The rebound in support for integration in Wake County echoes earlier fights in districts like La Crosse, Wisconsin, where a socioeconomic integration plan came under attack in the early 1990s but voters subsequently ousted those school board members who would have re-segregated the schools after it became clear that they did not have the best interests of children at heart.
The defeat of school board chairman Margiotta was especially telling. In what is described as the most strongly Republican of Wake County’s nine school board districts, voters sided with business people and teachers and civil rights groups in rejecting resegregation. This development should give hope to supporters of integration that if implemented smartly — through public school choice rather than compulsory busing — diversity can win broad support from voters.
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