Experts duel over busing, diversity in Wake

Staff WriterMarch 23, 2011 

— Two national education experts clashed at a forum Tuesday over whether schools in Wake County and across the nation should still be busing students to promote diversity.

Richard Kahlenberg, an outspoken supporter of busing students to create socioeconomic diversity, argued that decades of national research shows there's still a need to actively promote school integration. But Abigail Thernstrom, a longtime critic of school busing, said she couldn't believe they were still talking about busing students in the 21st century.

"I feel as if discussing this today I'm in a time warp," said Thernstrom, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Are we still talking about busing of any sort on any basis? It's the quintessential example of a failed social policy."

The forum, sponsored by the John Locke Foundation and the Campbell University School of Law's Federalist Society, both conservative groups, took place as Wake County's school diversity fight has generated national attention.

The Wake school board voted last year to eliminate the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in assigning students to schools. That decision has sparked heated debates, protests, a federal civil rights investigation and a review of the district's high school accreditation.

Superintendent Tony Tata recently formed a task force of school administrators to develop a new student assignment plan that will be presented to the school board by late spring. One of the things board members are considering is a model proposed by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce that calls for providing diversity by trying to limit the number of low-performing students at schools.

"There is now at least the framework for a consensus position on this very divisive question of integration in the schools," said Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank.

Kahlenberg pointed to what he called "dozens of studies" that show the benefits of middle-class, socioeconomically integrated schools and the challenges of high-poverty schools. Kahlenberg noted how high-poverty schools have lower achievement levels, higher teacher turnover, lower parental involvement and are 22 times less likely to be high performing than a school filled with children from middle-class homes.

"When drawing up public policy, we have to be aware that high-poverty schools almost never work," he said.

In contrast, Thernstrom downplayed using social science research in making education policy decisions. She said she wasn't impressed by the research Kahlenberg presented or the many sociologists have filed court briefs backing diversity efforts

"Sociology is the discipline that is the last refuge for Marxists in American society," said Thernstrom, who drew boos from the diversity policy supporters in the audience.

Thernstrom said schools should be focused on letting parents choose where their children want to go and not on the demographics of who is sitting next to them.

Thernstrom faced some tough questions from the audience. She disputed the idea that schools are resegregating in large urban school districts, arguing that instead enrollments are becoming more diverse.

Thernstrom acknowledged that there's no school district as a whole that has solved the problem of high-poverty schools. But she said that regular public schools are too afraid to tell students not to drop out, girls to wait until they're married to become pregnant and students to wait until they can afford children.

"Teachers and schools are very afraid to deliver those messages because they're called white and middle class," Thernstrom said. "They are not white and middle class. They are American rules of economic and social mobility."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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