RALEIGH — Wake County's public school system, which has been dogged by political infighting, a federal investigation and accusations that its schools could resegregate, is caught up a viral wave of national publicity.
The swirl of attention - including a caution from the nation's top educator and a merciless ribbing from an influential late night comedian - shows the changing image of a system that was once praised as one of the nation's best.
Wake County has benefited for years from positive publicity about its schools as it recruited business and families. But now leaders are confronting the possible fallout from a different kind of news.
"Where it becomes more troubling is as it increases in frequency and volume, particularly without people's taking time to Google all the reference and get all the background," said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.
The most recent notoriety for Wake came late Tuesday, when comedian Stephen Colbert mocked the school board on his cable show, "The Colbert Report," for eliminating a socioeconomic diversity policy in a shift toward neighborhood schools.
"Sure, integrating schools may sound benign," Colbert said on the nightly Comedy Central show. "But what's the use of living in a gated community if my kids go to school and get 'poor' all over them?"
A spate of news
The faux-news segment followed a weeklong spate of controversy involving the school board, which in addition to squabbling over school assignment has been split over whether to resist an investigation by an accrediting agency.
A Jan. 12 front-page report in The Washington Post about Wake's policy reversal prompted a chiding from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint against Wake schools filed by the NAACP. In a letter to the editor of the Post, Duncan called Wake's actions "troubling."
That bought the state's biggest school system at least a temporary ride - and a cascade of Tweets - across the national media landscape.
The Associated Press followed with a story about Duncan's criticism, which was picked up by newspapers and radio stations throughout the country.
The board also received criticism from Gov. Bev Perdue, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and others during observances honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Fox Business Network on Monday featured a segment with school board member John Tedesco, who defended the school board's actions during an interview on "The Willis Report."
"We're one of the most integrated and diverse communities in the country right now and quite frankly having the mindset that simply reassigning kids is the answer to education has failed us," Tedesco said on Fox.
Then Colbert, who plays the role of a conservative commentator during his satirical reports, singled out Tedesco in his segment: "Luckily, Tedesco is part of a group of tea party backed Republican school board members who recently voted for Wake County schools to go back to the old system of separate neighborhood schools to better teach the kids the three 'R's," Colbert said as the words "Readin', 'Ritin', and Resegregatin'" flashed on the screen.
Colbert mocked Tedesco for having said in The Washington Post that Wake's old policy of trying to balance the percentages of low-income students in schools diluted the problem so people could ignore it.
"See? Misguided government do-gooders foolishly diluted the problem by addressing it," Colbert said. "We need to ignore it, so we'll pay attention to it!"
Colbert also called Wake's old diversity policy "an out of control success story."
"I thought it was hilarious," Tedesco said in an interview on Wednesday. "It was certainly skewed and certainly out of context."
Tedesco downplayed the possibility of the controversy having a negative impact on Raleigh's image or on the debate in the community.
"It gives us an opportunity as a community to come together to have a dialogue and a laugh."
Six years ago, Wake enjoyed better press. Its reputation as a system with "no bad schools" was sparked in part by a story in The New York Times, which featured the headline: "As Test Scores Jump, Raleigh Credits Integration by Income."
Supporters of the Republican-backed Wake board that came to power in 2009 say the Times story relied on inflated scores to support the system's policy of keeping school in balance by socio-economic background. They said it presented too rosy a portrait of a system that already displeased thousands of families with long bus rides and frequent reassignments for students.
Republican school board member Chris Malone said Wednesday that Colbert and other critics have ignored the poor academic scores and graduation rates for low-income and minority students under the old diversity policy.
He also criticized The Washington Post's article, which linked the election of the new school board majority with support from the tea party.
"To say that the tea party has taken over is God-darn ridiculous," Malone said.
Malone, while calling the Colbert segment "hysterical," said he doubted it would have much long-term impact on public opinion.
"We don't want to give Stephen Colbert too much credit as to how much it will sway people," Malone said. "It will be forgotten quickly across the country."
Colbert is, of course, a comedian, but a much-cited Pew Research study showed that his Comedy Central mentor Jon Stewart, seen immediately before Colbert on weeknights, has considerable clout among younger news consumers.
And these days, their jabs can last longer, said Geoffrey Baym, an associate professor of media studies at UNC-Greensboro.
"We have all of this technology that allows the end users to correspond with each other," Baym said. "It's not just their ability to talk to each other, but they can also upload it and share clips. That clip is an artifact that will move around and continue to be seen."
Baym correctly predicted that the story would wind up on the closely followed liberal blog Huffington Post.
Schmitt, of the Raleigh chamber, which supported the diversity policy , appreciated the Colbert segment to a point, but worried about its impact.
"It was funny, regardless to the merits on either side, as a single moment in the media storm," he said.
He noted that the comedian has a million viewers among young professionals, a target group as the region works to attract the "creative class."
"While it was a joke and obviously an exaggeration, it's not useful from a public policy perspective as we work to attract jobs to our region and county," Schmitt said.
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