A more equitable school system

February 13, 2011 

It is easy to underestimate the ambition and idealism inherent in Wake County Public Schools' countywide system. This particular arrangement - resulting from the merger of city and county schools in the 1970s - has afforded us the chance to pursue, if not completely achieve, the lofty ideal of equal educational opportunity.

This goal is a practical impossibility in most counties around the United States. Within Union County, N.J., for example, a county of a little over 100 square miles, there are separate school districts with very high and very low rates of poverty right alongside each other, with correlating educational experiences that are worlds apart.

It has been a point of pride for residents of Wake County, which fills an ample 831 square miles, to hold onto the American dream of equal educational opportunity. Although we may fall short in many ways, a bedrock value of our community has been the continual aspiration to provide good schools to all of our county's children, regardless of their family's income level or the color or their skin. Just how close we have come to meeting that goal is a matter of great debate.

Specifically, our yearlong battle over student assignment has brought to the surface many complaints about long-festering inequities in our system. Many of these complaints are valid: We do have an egregious achievement gap between minority and white students, there is evidence of inequitable access to higher level math classes, there is a gross racial imbalance in school suspension rates and there is unequal access to the county's coveted magnet programs. What do we do about these problems?

Neighborhood schools are not the answer. Such schools placed in high-poverty neighborhoods become high-poverty schools. And most available evidence indicates that high-poverty schools exacerbate the academic struggles of poor and minority children rather than ameliorate them. There is little logic in seriously contemplating neighborhood schools as a solution to the achievement gap.

Neither is there much reason to think that neighborhood schools would improve access to higher level math classes, as high-poverty schools would be less likely to even offer them. Nor is there reason to believe that high-poverty schools would decrease suspension rates.

Neighborhood schools might bring magnets closer to the suburbs, but this is problematic. Magnet schools provide excellent educational opportunities, but they exist in our system to prevent high-poverty schools and use capacity more efficiently. High-poverty schools are rare in our suburbs, and so are underused schools. Some want magnet schools in the suburbs, but we do not need magnet schools in the suburbs to reduce poverty or improve facilities use.

Further, neighborhood schools proponents have tried to reassign thousands of poor minority students to schools in Southeast Raleigh. This is another way to use those schools, which are now magnets, but it is not a good way. It will destroy magnet programs by eliminating room for them and leave in their place high-poverty schools, which rarely succeed.

Our current magnet system is an excellent program that has taken decades to cultivate and that has served generations of children in Wake County of all racial and economic backgrounds. In its place will stand 13 segregated schools (91 percent black and Hispanic), two-thirds of whose students will receive free or reduced-price lunches. Is that really where we want to go?

We could decide instead as a community that we will not view the education of our children as a zero sum game, in which some children are forced to attend "have not" schools while other children can attend good ones. There is no law of nature that dictates such a distribution of resources. If we in Wake County could reaffirm a commitment to equality of educational opportunity, which is the purpose of public education in a democratic society, and also reaffirm our commitment to the existing magnet program as it was originally conceived - to maximize the use of facilities and encourage voluntary integration - we could turn our attention to solving the problems that vex us.

What we need are pragmatic and creative solutions, not a defeatist attitude that abandons our effort to ensure that good schools exist everywhere in the county. If access to magnet schools is plainly inadequate, expand the magnets. Commit the resources to make it possible to "magnetize" an underenrolled rim school, for example, decreasing travel times for suburban students and increasing access to desirable programs. If access to magnets is viewed as arbitrary, revise the process to make it more transparent. Consider testing for access to AG Basics, as this program cannot function without a critical mass of AG-identified children.

The magnet program may present complicated problems, but solving them is not insurmountable. And under current board policy, the magnet schools are the only thing left in our county encouraging voluntary integration.

Similarly, if we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we must immediately cease all reassignments that create high-poverty schools. Academically struggling students don't need to be corralled together. They need mentoring, teachers who hold them to high standards, rigorous curricula, academically stronger peers and social support. Moreover, teachers and staff need to be trained to discuss openly the problem of institutionalized racism in schools and to learn new skills that encourage the success of students of color.

The achievement gap is an enormous national problem that deserves the focused attention of our best leaders. It should never have been used as an excuse to resegregate our schools.

Karey Harwood is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at N.C. State University.

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