Christensen

Is decades-long effort for diversity over?

Staff WriterOctober 8, 2009 

Wake County's 38-year effort to keep its school system racially and economically balanced may have been living on borrowed time.

Since the late 1980s, the practice of busing children out of racially segregated neighborhoods has been in decline nationwide -- a result of white flight from the cities, more conservative attitudes among voters, courts that ruled against such efforts and questions about whether busing was aiding the black children it was intended to help.

Even Wake County had changed the branding of its school assignment plan in 2000, no longer talking about busing for racial integration, but instead about a goal of economic diversity. Still, the majority of the children the effort focused on were black.

Tuesday's vote swept into office a slate of school board candidates who ran on a pro-neighborhood-schools platform. The result seems likely to presage the end of a generation of efforts in Wake to seek racial balance in its schools.

Critics, ranging from the late Sen. Jesse Helms to state employees leader Dana Cope, denounced the effort as social engineering. But supporters saw the diversity effort as a way of keeping Raleigh an economically vibrant city and preventing the state capital from becoming another racially polarized region such as Richmond, Va., or Newark, N.J., or Detroit.

Wake County schools, like the rest of the South, were once racially segregated by law. Raleigh's first school was integrated in 1960 when Bill Campbell, a future mayor of Atlanta, peacefully entered an elementary school.

But throughout the 1960s the schools remained largely segregated by practice because of segregated housing patterns. In 1971, Raleigh city schools began their first busing plan, expanding from 18 buses to 150 buses.

Raleigh always had a reputation as a moderate Southern city. It elected its first black mayor in 1973, even though it was overwhelmingly white.

Many in the city's business and political establishment got behind busing in the 1970s, just as they did earlier this week, when Mayor Charles Meeker and Smedes York, a former mayor, spoke at a news conference on behalf of continuing the diversity plan.

The Raleigh leadership wanted to avoid what has occurred in many major U.S. cities, where white flight has caused racial polarization and decline.

In Richmond, for example, most white families with school-age children now live in the nearby suburban counties of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover. In Raleigh, some nationally recognized schools, such as Enloe High School, have remained in central-city neighborhoods.

The idea behind Wake's efforts was that a thriving school system was critical to growth.

"It gave the whole county strength and enabled the city of Raleigh to have such vitality," York once said.

Raleigh's population has grown from 120,000 in 1970 to 392,000 today.

Raleigh loses power

The community's leadership took a series of steps over the years designed to keep schools integrated. They merged the Raleigh and Wake County school systems in 1976. And they started magnet schools in 1982 to attract suburban students to central Raleigh.

But Wake County has grown so much that Raleigh's downtown political leadership now carries little weight in the far-reaching suburbs in Cary and Apex and Fuquay-Varina. Cary, with 134,000 people, is larger today than Raleigh was when it began busing.

When Raleigh leaders held this week's news conference to support the diversity slate, one of their opponents ridiculed them.

"Do you know who cares about those people?" said John Tedesco, a pro-neighborhood candidate from Garner. "People inside the Beltline."

For many voters, the decades-long effort to prevent Raleigh from becoming another Richmond or Newark was either unknown, seen as ancient history or irrelevant. These voters' concerns tend to be more focused on their children's school assignments, and they saw the current diversity plans as an impediment to their children getting a good education.

GOP has momentum

Although the school board is officially nonpartisan, the Republican Party backed the pro-neighborhood candidates, while the Democrats supported the pro-diversity plan candidates.

As town hall meetings this summer showed, the Republican Party has intensity and momentum right now -- fed by opposition to the policies of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress. That proved a major factor in a low-turnout, off-year election.

There are now major questions facing the region if the diversity plan is scrapped. Will predominantly black schools in Southeast Raleigh provide a quality education for the next generation? Will the lack of racial integration have an effect on young white families planning to buy homes in central downtown neighborhoods? Will suburban schoolchildren see any reduction in busing, because most no longer live within walking distance of schools? Will there be any lessoning of school reassignments because of the county's fast growth?

More than a generation after the Wake County schools began busing, the housing patterns are now far more integrated. So my guess is that even without busing, most schools will have at least token racial integration.

Perhaps the four decades of busing may have bought this community breathing time to avoid some of the problems that have beset other cities.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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