During this fall's heated Wake County school board race, supporters of the diversity policy repeatedly warned that backing candidates who favor neighborhood schools would lead to a Charlotte-style school system with lower academic results.
But the newly elected school board members, all of whom back neighborhood schools, say they're having the last laugh now. They're pointing to recently released state report cards that show black and low-income students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system are outperforming their peers in Wake on state exams.
"We're not saying that Charlotte is the right way, but the fact that they're doing better than us shows how poorly we've been doing," said John Tedesco, who won a runoff election Tuesday for the school board.
Tedesco's victory completed a sweep that began in October when three other candidates who also oppose the diversity policy were elected. In December, they'll join current board member Ron Margiotta in forming a new majority on the nine-member board.
Wake's policy of busing students to balance the percentages of low-income students at individual schools was a major part of the campaign.
In television ads and campaign mailers, supporters of the diversity policy tried to link a return to neighborhood schools in Wake with what has happened to Charlotte schools since the district abandoned busing for diversity in 2002. With more children returning to schools in their neighborhood, the suburban schools have grown more white and affluent while inner-city Charlotte schools have become more black and poor.
Charlotte school leaders have adopted policies that have pumped millions of dollars into the high-poverty schools to improve their academic performance. Scores at these schools have improved over time to overtake Wake in some areas.
Critics of the diversity policy have argued it has masked the performance of individual students. They've also pointed to a recent SAS Institute report that questioned how well Wake is educating low-income and minority students.
Tedesco said the new board's goal will be to find a better way than either Charlotte or Wake now uses to educate its neediest students.
"We're going to help people who were hidden and shuffled around within the numbers," Tedesco said.
Wake school leaders have traditionally pointed to how they outperform Charlotte overall on state exams and don't have any extremely low-performing schools. But critics of the diversity policy counter that part of the reason can be attributed to Wake having significantly fewer low-income students than Charlotte.
Wake school board member Keith Sutton is a strong supporter of the diversity policy. But Sutton, who was appointed to the board in August to fill a vacancy, conceded that Charlotte might be doing a better job reaching out to its disadvantaged students.
Sutton said some Wake students might be slipping through the cracks at schools that don't receive federal funding to help low-income students. But he said abandoning the policy for neighborhood schools isn't the answer.
"I don't think the system is broken," Sutton said. "Can it be tweaked? Sure."
Supporters of Wake's diversity policy note that the district gets less money than Charlotte. Looking just at local dollars, Charlotte got $77.14 more per student than Wake this past school year. Making up that difference would cost an additional $10.8 million dollars in county money.
But Tedesco said the new board can find ways to improve the performance of low-income and minority students without necessarily spending any more money. "You can't just keep tossing money at the problem," Tedesco said. "We have to think smarter."
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