Martinez

Distraction from the classrooms

CorrespondentJune 30, 2010 

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker was right when he lashed out at the Wake County school board's new majority and, in essence, called them a bunch of Yankee yahoos who don't represent "our values."

I, for one, am glad the new majority champions a different set of beliefs. I've never been fond of intellectual prejudice and voter disenfranchisement.

Yet those are the values Meeker, the Rev. William Barber (state NAACP president) and Yevonne Brannon (Great Schools in Wake Coalition co-chair) have inadvertently promoted with their protests directed at the duly elected board majority. Without seeing a plan, Meeker, Barber and Brannon have played the race card by decreeing that the neighborhood-school based student assignment concept is a path back to 1960s-era racial segregation.

Meeker has tried to intimidate the school board majority. "We need to do anything in our power to stop the school board," he told the Raleigh City Council before it adopted a resolution in April that implied the majority is trying to resegregate the schools. He also played the heavy by calling on business leaders and legal experts to scrutinize every move the board makes on student assignment. Meeker is married to school board member Dr. Anne McLaurin, now in the voting minority.

Theatrics appears to be the strong suit of Rev. Barber. He plans to follow his prime-time trespassing arrest at the school board meeting two weeks ago with a July 20 march that will probably include a demonstration at that day's scheduled board meeting.

Brannon continues to organize forums that are more choir rehearsals than enlightened debate about ways to improve student achievement among African-American, Hispanic and poor children.

Ah yes, achievement. Remember that? Unfortunately, the social justice movement's addiction to economic diversity has relegated academic performance to the back of the bus.

If there is an intellectual foundation to the diversity proponents' case other than beating up on Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and citing research with little application to Wake County, I can't find it. Lost in their romantic rhetoric is this cold hard fact - graduation rates for black, Hispanic and poor students have fallen under the economic diversity policy to which the proponents cling.

Let's review. According to Wake County schools' own data published in October, the overall graduation rate for black students fell from 69.9 percent in 2006 to 63.4 percent in 2009. For Hispanics, it dropped from 57.7 to 51.1 percent. For black males, the graduation rate in 2009 was 57.4 percent, and it was a paltry 45.5 for Hispanic boys.

The graduation rate for students receiving free and reduced-price meals is also in a free fall. From a high of 63.3 percent in 2007, it plummeted to 54.2 in 2009.

This is the fruit produced by Wake County's socioeconomic student assignment system. Why anyone would want to preserve it is beyond me.

Regardless of what one thinks about the new board's policies, the majority won the right at the ballot box to implement them. Criticism that the majority was empowered by a minuscule portion of the electorate is accurate. But it's no more legitimate than a claim that Elaine Marshall doesn't deserve the U.S. Senate nomination because more than 90 percent of North Carolina's Democratic voters didn't cast a ballot in the runoff.

Of course, the school board majority is not immune to vigorous debate and shrewd political opposition. But increasingly, Meeker, Barber and Brannon are attempting to negate the votes of those who support school board members Ron Margiotta, Debra Goldman, Chris Malone, Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco by resorting to political tactics designed to obstruct instead of illuminate.

Frankly, I doubt neighborhood schools will improve poor and minority student achievement one iota. But once the policy is implemented, local leaders, hopefully, will refocus on the academic output of Wake classrooms rather than being fixated on their racial and economic makeup.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@verizon.net) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and StateGovernmentRadio.com.

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