RALEIGH — The Wake County Public School System's 30-year commitment to diversity and its income-based assignment policy have received national acclaim. Test scores are up, and costs are relatively low, compared with other school districts in the state.
So why would anyone want to undo that progressive track record?
With four seats on Wake's Board of Education up for grabs Oct. 6, those who oppose the board's current policies are confident that their time has arrived. They want to overturn the so-called "status quo," but, as the past three decades prove, Wake County's status quo is a good thing. Is it perfect? Of course not, but we're obviously headed in the right direction.
The majority of Wake County residents agree with the overall goals of Wake's current income-based assignment policy because they believe that it is in the best, long-term interest of the entire community.
Further, a diverse student body in every school is an excellent way to prepare all students for the global community they will eventually enter to live and work.
The school system's critics want to roll back the clock on our children. They advocate neighborhood schools that will effectively end the county's commitment to income-based diversity.
"Neighborhood schools" sound warm and fuzzy. However, because it's highly likely that you and your neighbors are filing your taxes within the same bracket, that hardly constitutes socioeconomic diversity. A more accurate term would be "anti-diversity."
We need only to look to Charlotte-Mecklenburg to see what an anti-diversity policy would mean for Wake County's children and our quality of life -- not to mention our tax bills and property values.
Recent stories in The Charlotte Observer ("College prep lags at CMS urban schools," Aug. 30, and "Schools ruling led to a decade of change," Sept. 10) illustrate the devastating and costly results of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg School System's shift to neighborhood schools 10 years ago. While mostly white, suburban schools are overcrowded but flourishing, low-income urban schools are failing.
Numerous studies demonstrate that schools with high levels of poverty have difficulty retaining teachers and creating an environment conducive to learning. These schools often become incubators for gang activity and other social challenges. Since the decision to resegregate schools in Charlotte, the level of poverty has increased as "large swaths of schools have been abandoned by all but the poor."
Throwing money at the problem isn't helping. According to the Wake Education Partnership's publication "Striking a Balance," Wake spends less per student than other comparable urban districts, including CMS. In addition, despite having neighborhood schools, CMS spent $675.19 per student for busing costs in 2006-2007 (the last year district comparisons are available), compared with Wake's $540.98 per student.
In the Sept. 10 Charlotte Observer story, outgoing CMS school board member Larry Gauvreau recalled the court case that set Charlotte on its current path 10 years ago. He noted, "There's little difference after the court case, except that we now have more buses, not less; more magnet schools, not less; more assignment/facility schemes, not less; ... more white flight, not less. I could go on and on."
Similarly, other Charlotte leaders are pining for Wake's sustained success. CMS board member Tom Tate has called for CMS "to draw boundaries to balance poverty levels, similar to what Wake County does." Academically, he noted, "Wake's system outperforms CMS on many academic measures."
The facts are clear. Wake's commitment to income-based diversity has played a pivotal role in the county's academic and economic progress. The system isn't perfect, and, like all government programs, it needs to be constantly re-evaluated and altered to fit the changing dynamics of the county. However, reversing a policy that has earned national accolades and increasingly excellent academic results locally would be akin to throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
So, let's heed the lesson that Charlotte is learning the hard way. By building upon the progress we've already realized, Wake County will continue to prosper and our children will get the quality educations they will need to compete in a global, diverse marketplace.
Maria J. Mauriello is co-founder of BiggerPicture4Wake.com.