RALEIGH — In a sign of things to come for the state and the nation, the Wake County school system is no longer made up of a majority of white students.
New figures released Tuesday by Wake show that children from minority groups account for a majority of the 143,289 students in the state's largest school system. It's a trend that has been years in the making, fueled in part by the fast growth in Hispanic enrollment.
"It's a blend of immigration, demographics shifts and birth rates," said James Johnson, a professor at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School and a co-writer of a 2006 study on the economic effect of Hispanics in North Carolina.
Johnson said Hispanic residents in the state are younger and their families are on average having three children. By comparison, he said, non-Hispanic white families are having an average of one child.
Wake's 20,909 Hispanic students account for 14.6 percent of the district's enrollment; there were 295 Hispanic students in Wake in 1987. At the same time, the percentage of black students in Wake schools has declined, while the percentage of Asian students, though still small, has doubled.
The Kenan-Flagler study estimated that 45 percent of Hispanics in North Carolina were living in the U.S. illegally, and that educating the children of illegal immigrants costs the state an estimated $210 million a year; in 1995, that figure was less than $10 million. It's not known what portion of Wake's Hispanic students are the children of illegal immigrants.
Public school districts have no choice about educating students. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school districts must provide an education to students regardless of their immigration status.
While illegal immigration has become a big political issue in the United States, Wake school board member John Tedesco said it's not one for school leaders to handle. He said the school board must focus on whether Wake needs to change how it provides services to Hispanic students.
"My purview is to provide an education for every kid in the classroom," Tedesco said.
But school board member Keith Sutton said the projected budget shortfall will affect the system's ability to deal with some challenges that accompany the demographic changes.
"Certainly, having more students with English as a second language, that's a challenge," Sutton said. "Not having the full complement of resources to address that is certainly a challenge."
There may be other challenges as well. Historically, minority students have accounted for the majority of students who received federally subsidized lunches, a measure of household income. This school year, 32 percent of students were receiving subsidized lunches, compared with 21 percent in 1999.
Browning of Wake
Wake's white enrollment has gone up over time but has only accounted for a third of the district's net new students since 1990. White students accounted for 70 percent of Wake's enrollment in 1988. The percentage has been dropping since the mid-1990s; it is 49.5 percent this year.
It's a trend that's likely to continue. Census officials estimate that minorities will outnumber whites nationwide by 2050. White students accounted for 48.1 percent of the new students who enrolled in Wake this school year.
"It's indicative of where we are going as a region and as a country," Sutton said. "You've heard of the browning of America - the county's demographics have trended in the same way."
In addition to the demographic shifts, Johnson questioned whether the controversy embroiling Wake may have accelerated the drop in white enrollment this year. The school board voted 5-4 in May to eliminate the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in assigning students to schools.
But Tedesco said the fact that Wake is already a majority minority district means you can't blame the board's move toward community schools for the change in demographics.
"We're already a diverse district," Tedesco said. "You can't say we're separating out what is a majority of the district."
The school system's enrollment is out of line with the county's demographic mix. The Census Bureau estimated that 64.2 percent of Wake's total population and 58.5 percent of the school-age population was white in 2009, suggesting that whites are more likely to attend private or charter schools or be taught at home.
A tipping point?
Scholars have said that once a school's minority enrollment becomes a majority that it reaches a tipping point and that white students aren't likely to return. White enrollment is now less than a majority at 83 of Wake's 163 schools.
But Tedesco argued that Wake can attract white families that have left the school system or chosen in the first place to go with private schools, charter schools or home schools.
"I don't think we've reached the tipping point of not getting people to support our schools," Tedesco said.
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith and news researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.
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