Wake school board about to end diversity policy

Assignment debate will go on

Staff WriterMay 18, 2010 

  • Today's Wake County school board meeting, during which a vote will be taken on the student assignment policy, will begin at 3 p.m. at 3600 Wake Forest Road in Raleigh. Tickets for the 153 seats in the board room will be distributed beginning at 12:30 p.m.

    People can begin registering onsite at 2 p.m. to speak at the public comment section of the meeting, which begins at 4 p.m. People don't need a ticket to be able to speak.

    If the crowd exceeds the capacity of the board room, overflow seating will be provided for about 100 people in two conference room on a different floor in the building. Video monitors will be connected to those rooms.

    Students have gotten a permit from the Raleigh Police Department to hold a protest this afternoon outside the school board offices.

— The Wake County school system is poised to officially end 30 years of policy designed to promote school diversity in favor of moving the state's largest district toward neighborhood schools.

The school board is expected to give final approval today to eliminating references to diversity in the student assignment policy and make it a priority to send students to schools near where they live. While critics complain that the change will lead to racial resegregation, members of the new board majority and their supporters say the diversity policy hasn't worked.

"We're dinosaurs," said school board chairman Ron Margiotta. "We're one of the last districts still busing children. That kind of tells you something."

But supporters of diversity vow they're not giving up the fight even though the vote looks like a foregone conclusion. At a supporters' rally Monday night at Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, donations were collected for legal fees and parents were solicited to join a potential lawsuit. The rally, organized by the state NAACP, drew more than 300 people.

"Lawyers might have to get in the courts," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP. "Some of us might have to get in the streets. Some of us might have to go to jail. Forward ever, backwards never."

He said nearly $1,500 was donated by those attending Monday's rally to help pay the legal fees.

A lawsuit trying to get two recent votes against the diversity policy tossed out for technical reasons was dismissed Friday by a judge.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was school board policy to promote diversity by balancing the percentages of minority students at schools. A decade ago, the board switched to promoting diversity by balancing the percentages of low-income students.

The policy has meant some students, usually poor and minority, are bused long distances to schools outside their communities. In other cases, students of different income levels have been sent to a school that's not necessarily the closest one to help balance the demographics of schools in an area.

Wake's diversity efforts, at a time when most school districts across the nation have opted to go with neighborhood schools, earned it national recognition.

But last fall newly elected school board members attacked the diversity policy, citing poor test scores and graduation rates among low-income and minority students.

The four new board members helped form a 5-4 board majority that has been moving since taking office in December toward changing Wake's student assignment model.

"When what you're doing isn't working and it's restricting educational opportunities for children, you've got to try something different," said Kathleen Brennan, a founder of Wake CARES, a parents' group that backs the new board majority.

At the rally Monday, Barber pointed to the national education research showing that racially diverse schools do better and that high-poverty schools typically do worse academically and have problems such as low parental participation and high teacher turnover.

Barber noted that the board's vote was coming one day after the 56th anniversary Monday of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed racial segregation of schools.

"What is sad and cynical about what this anti-diversity caucus is trying to do," Barber said, "is that five months of action is threatening to destroy 56 years of progress."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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