RALEIGH — Judging by the rhetoric of both sides in the high-stakes school board election Tuesday, Wake County students could be attending two different public school systems.
Those who side with the ruling majority on the nine-member board depict North Carolina's largest school district as a nationally known, high-achieving system with a virtually unique means of keeping schools diverse in population while maintaining overall academic performance. Those who oppose current practices, such as busing students to achieve economic diversity, say Wake hides its failures -- low-achieving students, mostly from minority groups -- by shuffling them in and out of schools in higher-income areas.
In off-year school board elections, turnout is typically low, but this year there is extra emotion, activism and partisanship. Media ads, news conferences, statements and numbers keep flying in last-minute appeals to voters.
Supporters of the current board raise the specter of de facto resegregation of schools under new direction. Meanwhile, board opponents say that mandated diversity isn't helping low-income students and that busing shatters parental support and sense of community.
Both contingents wave statistics to make their cases, although a report from the SAS Institute may give credence to the arguments that the diversity policy isn't helping low-income students.
The candidates backed by the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents group opposed to the diversity policy, have emphasized that Wake's graduation rate for low-income students is 54.6 percent -- below the state average of 61.8 percent.
"Wake County calls itself one of the premier school districts in the nation," said Terry Stoops, education policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh think tank that has been critical of Wake's policies. "It doesn't gibe when it has only 55 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduating."
Supporters of the diversity policy tout Wake's high overall scores on the SAT and state exams, high overall graduation rate and the area's frequent appearance on lists of best places to live and work. Those factors may help explain why business leaders have traditionally supported the diversity policy.
"The public schools take great credit for the prosperity of this region," said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.
Depending on whose vision prevails in four district contests, the school system could face a radical remake -- from the current diversity-based system to one built on neighborhood schools. That's an exciting prospect for suburban parents weary of frequent student reassignments and mandatory year-round schools. These parents also criticize the system as arrogant and challenge as unproven the educational theory that low-income students fare better alongside children from varied backgrounds. "I don't think it helps the students they bus in and it surely makes it impossible for the parents to have anything to do with the school," said Al Floyd, who lives between Leesville Road and Glenwood Avenue and has three children in Wake County schools.
Advocates of the current system include Calla Wright, who heads the group Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children. At a community meeting Thursday night, she urged the group of about 60 people to make their views known at the polling place Tuesday. She warned that a newly segregated system could emerge from a change in the board.
"We believe that all students benefit from economically and racially diverse schools," Wright told an audience at the Hargett Street YWCA. "I ask each of you to touch someone, to go out to the polls and take this message on Tuesday."
A partisan battle
The issues cut deep in both directions. The candidates and supporters pushing for fundamental policy changes and neighborhood schools -- backed by the Republican Party -- feel passionately that they've lost control of their children's educational destiny and are paying for it in a variety of ways.
Some parents cite their frustrating encounters with school officials over reassignment and students' long bus rides as examples.
"I heard so many horror stories about reassignment and forced year-round, it was very frustrating," said Gail Marold, a spokeswoman for Take Wake Schools Back, a political action committee devoted to changing board members and policies, and a volunteer in media relations for the Wake Republican Party.
The political forces and candidates -- mostly Democrats -- who'd like to see the current approach preserved and improved -- look with something like horror at the reversal of hard-fought decades in which diversity was one of the Wake system's guiding stars.
"If you didn't know the history it would be a very natural thing to maybe not feel those lessons in your heart," said Wade Smith, one of the state's pre-eminent defense attorneys and a former legislator who worked to merge a declining Raleigh city system with the Wake County schools in the mid-1970s.
Smith will appear at a news conference Monday to urge a continued focus on diversity, along with Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, Capitol Broadcasting President Jim Goodmon, school board member Keith Sutton and Marion Robinson, pastor at St. Matthew A.M.E. Church.
"Those two school systems had two separate budgets and were operating in every way independently," Smith said of the forerunners of the merged system. "The Raleigh schools were growing more and more African American, and the county schools were far, far more white."
Wake County voted down a proposed merger in a referendum, but Smith and others got it passed by legislative action; and the city and county schools became one system in 1976. After years of balancing schools for racial diversity, Wake County adopted its family-income based approach in 2000. Proponents of the current system say they understand parents' desire for neighborhood schools, but not at the cost of having large majorities of children from minority groups at some schools.
"We cannot go back to a time when our schools were segregated," Smith said.
New tests, new data
For years, supporters of neighborhood schools have relied on the emotional appeal of children going to schools near where they live. But only recently have these critics found statistics that question how well Wake's low-income students are faring under the diversity policy.
Changes in state tests in recent years have lowered passing rates in schools statewide. With the revised tests, Wake's previously small racial achievement gap has widened; now low-income students and some minority groups are performing below the state average on some exams.
A recent SAS Institute report found that the way Wake analyzes school performance "tend[s] to camouflage schooling inadequacies for disadvantaged populations." It found that the achievement gap between Wake's low-income and non low-income students was greater than observed in other North Carolina districts.
The report was a response to a Wake school district report that questioned the program developed by SAS that is being used in school districts statewide to analyze school performance.
The candidates who oppose the diversity policy say neighborhood schools can improve academic performance by reducing time spent on bus and making it easier for parents to be involved at their child's school.
If the schools wind up with high percentages of minority students, so be it, some candidates and supporters say. But they say high-poverty schools should receive extra resources and parents in those schools' neighborhood should get extra options, including magnet and charter schools.
"If the parents choose to stay [in neighborhood schools], you can't fault the parents for deciding that," said Claude E. Pope Jr., Wake County Republican chairman.
Supporters of the diversity policy acknowledge that Wake needs to do more to help low-income and minority students. But they say that neighborhood schools would force property taxes higher, to pay for additional schools, and would not lead to better academic performance.
"Theirs is a false choice," said Jennifer Lanane, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, which has 5,000 Wake school employees as members. "Their side won't help the dropout rate."
Nationally, Wake's election is being viewed as a test of the support for school-diversity policies. With 140,000 students, Wake is the largest district in the nation that buses for socioeconomic diversity.
"If Wake County's plan went down, it would give an excuse to timid school board officials across the country not to do the right thing," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a think tank that supports socioeconomic diversity policies.
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