When the voters of Wake County last year overwhelmingly backed candidates who opposed the diversity policy of the incumbent school board, they did not reject the notion of diversity itself. The four candidates they decisively elected, who now represent the majority view on the board, have voted to change the policy and to implement a community schools program that will result in diverse student bodies without the necessity of busing children long distances day after school day.
Make no mistake about it: It was forced busing that caused the voters of the county to demand change. By large margins, they gave Deborah Prickett, Debra Goldman, Chris Malone and John Tedesco a clear mandate to join anti-busing incumbent Ron Margiotta and try a different policy.
The election was not a fluke. Turnout was higher than in previous school board elections. Moreover, the old diversity policy was ill-serving the children of the county and particularly those from low-income families - the very people the program was supposedly designed to help. Under forced busing, the graduation rate among economically disadvantaged children in Wake County shrank to 54.2 percent.
Clearly, it's time for a change, and the new school board majority has a plan as well as a mandate to make that change. Sadly, the opposing forces, clinging to the old, discredited policy, have chosen to reject the verdict of the people and engage in acts of disruption and intimidation. They claim the new board majority wants to resegregate the schools. This is an absurd claim, insulting to the board members and without evidence of any kind.
There are no segregationists on the Wake County school board. The protesters seem unaware of the fact that the cause they espouse - forced busing - had its day, failed miserably and is now a dead issue everywhere else in the country. When people from other states hear about what is going on here in Wake County, they typically react with amazement. "You're still fighting that battle?" is a common reaction.
If there ever were a failed policy of the past, it is forced busing. For about 35 years, zealous reformers tried it hither and yon, and it never worked anywhere. Finally, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed forced busing for racial purposes. The Wake County busing plan was designed to exploit a supposed loophole in the decision, and used the code word economic as a surrogate for racial. Whether this trick would survive a court challenge is questionable, which may be one reason the protesters have done much talking about suing the board but have yet to follow through.
Instead, those opposed to the new diversity policy based on the community schools concept might try a different tack - working with the board to help bring about excellence in Wake County schools. That's the goal. That's what we owe to our children.
This goal is important in its own right, but it is worth noting that it has very practical ripple effects, too. One of these is of real importance in today's economy, because Wake County is in constant competition to attract new jobs and businesses.
Businesses demand excellence in achievement, along with stability in school assignments, and those businesses considering relocation in Raleigh may well go elsewhere if we revert to an assignment policy that routinely reassigned students, and indeed whole neighborhoods, in order to achieve so-called socioeconomic balance. Instability is the enemy of economic development. Achievement, test scores and graduation rates will drive more businesses to relocate here, which translates into much-needed jobs for all socioeconomic classes in Wake County, higher property values for all homeowners and ultimately higher tax collections for our local governments.
The new board's community school policy is designed to create schools focused on achievement, where parental and community involvement in our children's education becomes the norm rather than the exception and where one's color, nationality and economic background are irrelevant. All factions should unite in an effort to make the new policy work as a diversity policy, a pathway to educational excellence and an engine of stability and prosperity for the whole community.
Claude E. Pope Jr. is chairman of the Wake County Republican Party.