RALEIGH — The turmoil over Wake County schools reached the top of the federal Department of Education Friday, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized Wake's decision to discard its school diversity policy in a letter published by the Washington Post.
Duncan's comments came near the end of a tumultuous week for Wake's 143,000-student system, which remained locked in a battle over a review of its accreditation with the powerful AdvancED agency. Both the accreditation agency's probe and an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights of Duncan's department were prompted by an NAACP complaint about the Wake system.
Responding to a Post article Wednesday about the system, Duncan wrote that "it is troubling to see North Carolina's Wake County School Board taking steps to reverse a long-standing policy to promote racial diversity in its schools." Noting the NAACP complaint filed against Wake with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, Duncan says "it should also prompt a conversation among educators, parents and students across America about our core values."
Asked about Duncan's comments in the Post, recently named Wake schools superintendent Tony Tata said Friday that he was surprised to see the education secretary express an opinion on such a local issue.
"He made a comment about racial diversity. It's socio-economic here," Tata said, referring to Wake's former diversity policy.
School board member John Tedesco, a leader of the board faction seeking to end enforced diversity in Wake schools, has frequently cited Duncan's reform efforts when he ran Chicago schools and his expressed support of community schools and merit pay for teachers.
"I'm disappointed because I'm so highly supportive of him," Tedesco said Friday. "I'm disappointed that he didn't reach out to us before making comments based on a skewed media report."
Duncan's letter also brought immediate criticism from the conservative magazine National Review.
"Secretary Duncan's letter indicates that he believes that children should be assigned to schools on the basis of their skin color, in order to achieve a particular politically correct racial balance," columnist Roger Clegg wrote in an online column Friday. "This is racial discrimination, and it is quite at odds with the dream of Dr. King -- the memory of whom Duncan ironically invokes -- that children not be judged by the color of their skin."
In December, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights sent Wake schools a long list of questions about student assignments and academic achievement. Investigators were seeking information on how many students were bused for socioeconomic diversity and on the board's rationale for dropping the policy.
Investigators also asked for copies of all records turned over to AdvancED for review.
The Wake school system also faces a separate Title IX probe by Duncan's agency over whether it discriminates against girls in interscholastic athletics.
AdvancED sets arrival
Meanwhile, AdvancED, the accreditation agency, said its team will arrive in Raleigh for a review of the school system on Feb. 17 and 18. The agency formally refused on Friday to accede to a hard-hitting list of demands the school board made about the scope and procedures of the agency's review. AdvancED told Wake leaders in a letter Friday that it would proceed with or without their cooperation.
"During the past six months, the leadership of Wake County Schools has maintained a confrontational attitude towards the accreditation process," AdvancED president Mark Elgart wrote. "The expectations defined through our standards, policies, and procedures are applied to over 27,000 institutions throughout the world. In no other instance has an institution or school system failed to cooperate in the accreditation process."
AdvancED has asked for information on a wide range of issues such as student assignment, the hiring of attorney Thomas Farr, the naming of the conservative Civitas Institute as a trainer for school board members and the decision not to build a high school on Forestville Road.
Elgart said AdvancED is trying to learn whom the school board is consulting for advice and whether the board is following its own policies and procedures. He said the agency is not specifically investigating things such as Farr's hiring.
"The focus of the inquiry is to not dictate policy to the Board of Education or to exert control over the governing powers and authorities," Elgart writes in Friday's letter. "However, it is designed to help the Board of Education improve their effectiveness so as to benefit the schools for which it governs."
School board Chairman Ron Margiotta noted that he and other leaders had traveled to Georgia to meet with AdvancED, among many other efforts to cooperate.
"I think we've been overly cooperative," Margiotta said Friday. "We provided them with all of the information they wanted."
'An open-book exam'
The Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP president and a leader of opposition to the school board's majority, said that the board's five Republicans had been "running roughshod over parents, teachers, and students rights, in violation of the Board's own rules." He questioned the board's motives in insisting on having lawyers present in active roles during the accreditation probe.
"The questions have been given out in advance," Barber said in a statement. "It's an open-book examination."
Tata, appearing Friday night before the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce at Marbles Kids Museum, said he hoped that everyone involved kept students' best interests in mind when dealing with the ongoing accreditation fight.
Students' hopes matter
"I have not been part of this discussion," Tata said in an interview, noting that his employment with Wake doesn't begin until Jan. 31. "I just pray that everyone is keeping the hopes and dreams of the juniors and seniors at heart."
He was alluding to the effect the accreditation dispute outcome could have on Wake County high school students applying to colleges and universities.
Addressing an invited crowd that included seven of nine Wake school board members and many other political and business leaders, Tata said he'd gotten tremendous advance support from Wake County in the form of hundreds ofe-mail messages and other communications.
He noted that immediate challenges include a projected $100 million budget deficit, a student assignment dispute and the accreditation fight.
"We've got a lot of hard work to do as a community," Tata said. "We've got to hang our egos out the door."
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