RALEIGH — A new Wake County school system report says the overwhelming majority of students attend schools near where they live, potentially undercutting arguments from critics who complain about the district busing children far from home.
The report indicates that 86 percent of students go to school within five miles of where they live and that 99 percent live within 10 miles. Those figures do not include families that chose to send their children to a school farther away from home, such as a magnet school.
"There are some people who think we do a lot of long-distance travel," said Chuck Dulaney, assistant superintendent for growth and planning and co-author of the new study. "I don't think people truly realize how short the distances are. Most of the people who are traveling long distances do so by choice."
But district critics who are likely to make support for neighborhood schools a campaign issue questioned the validity of the report. They noted that Wake based its study on the straight line, "as the crow flies" distance from a student's home to the school.
The road mileage students travel may be longer than the straight-line distance.
"It is deceitful of WCPSS to make these claims to the public," said Allison Backhouse, a member of the steering committee of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a group critical of the district's student assignment policies. "Buses don't travel in straight-line distances and neither do the children who spend hours on them."
Dulaney said they used straight-line distance to be able to provide an "apples to apples" comparison across the district. He said trying to determine distance based on the distance travelled by school bus or car is subjective and changes depending on the route.
But Dulaney acknowledged that using the straight-line distance means that the reported distance to school is several miles less than the actual travel distance for some students.
Student assignments and busing have long been contentious issues in Wake County. Unlike many other school districts, Wake doesn't simply assign students to the nearest school. Sometimes it's because of overcrowding. At other times, it's to promote diversity by balancing the percentages of low-income students at individual schools.
Wake's diversity efforts are likely to become a major campaign issue this year; four of the nine school board seats are on the Oct.6 ballot. Supporters of the diversity policy hope to maintain control of the school board.
"People ask us questions about distance, so we want to do the analysis periodically," Dulaney said.
The latest study, which looked at the 2006-07 school year, closely mirrored the findings from a report done in 2003-04. Dulaney said they'll do another analysis from the coming 2009-10 school year. He said he doesn't expect to see much change.
The new study indicated that the maximum distance to an assigned school was 14 miles, with the exception of 28 students who travel as much as 22 miles for special-education services.
Even though critics may quibble with the methodology of the analysis, it's clear that most students go to school near where they live, said Ann Denlinger, president of the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group for public education.
"It's clear that our school board and Central Services recognize the value of having students go to school near where they live and have accomplished that," Denlinger said.
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