RALEIGH — Wake County's former diversity-based student assignment policy actually harmed the academic achievement of many of the low-income students it was designed to help, school board majority members said Tuesday as they denied any discriminatory intent or result from their own assigning of students.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint from the state NAACP alleging that Wake's decision to drop the use of socioeconomic diversity in student assignment is racially discriminatory.
In a response Tuesday to federal investigators, school officials cited a variety of statistics, including new data that indicate low-income students who were bused farthest for diversity had the lowest test scores.
"The decision to stop using SES [socioeconomic status] is evidence of the majority's intent to restore equity and fairness in the student assignment process for poor and minority families," school board attorneys Ann Majestic and Neal Ramee wrote in the 42-page response.
The Republican-majority school board that took office in 2009 has come under fire for its decision to drop the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignments. The decision has sparked heated protests, national media coverage and arrests at school board meetings.
The Rev. William Barber, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the board's opinion about its own actions will not resolve the investigation. He said the board's actions will have to meet the standards of the law, as well as the lessons of history and of high-quality research.
"The conclusion of the matter is when the [Office of Civil Rights] vets their response against the facts," Barber said.
School board majority members have been forced by investigators to justify the decisions they've made.
Excluding students who choose to attend magnet schools or schools on different calendars, Tuesday's report showed that:
Whites accounted for 54 percent of students who are assigned to a school less than five miles from home.
Blacks accounted for 56 percent of the students who attended schools 10.1 to 15 miles from home.
Blacks also accounted for 95 percent of the students who lived more than 15 miles from their schools.
The report also cited data showing that academic performance for black students dropped as the distance from home increased. While the overall proficiency rate for black students was 51.7 percent, it was down to 23.8 percent for those who were assigned to a school 15.1 to 16 miles from home.
"The trends are undeniable: Students of all racial subgroups see their academic performance decline as the length of their bus ride increases," the report said.
The report also notes that the board's decision to drop socioeconomic status as a factor in filling magnet schools sharply increased the percentages of minorities in the sought-after schools. Previously, priority was given to upper- and middle-class families to get into magnet schools, most of which are in higher poverty areas in and near Southeast Raleigh.
This school year, 55 percent of black families and 58 percent of Hispanic families were accepted into magnet schools, compared to 36 percent the prior year for both groups.
'Part of the problem'
Two weeks ago, AdvancED, an accreditation agency that is also investigating Wake following a complaint from the state NAACP, accused school board members of not having compelling data to justify the elimination of the diversity policy.
The Georgia-based agency gave Wake a year to address a variety of issues to keep the accreditation of high schools.
But Wake school officials are telling federal officials they had valid reasons for the change.
"While opinions may vary as to the best way to promote academic achievement for poor and minority students, it was at least reasonable, in light of these facts for the new Board majority to believe that the District's consideration of SES in connection with student assignment has been part of the problem, not the solution in Wake County," the report said. "Moreover there is considerable data - specific to Wake County and North Carolina that supports this belief."
Federal investigators will be back in Raleigh to interview school board members. But school officials said in their report that critical comments made about Wake in January by U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan are "raising serious and legitimate concerns about the integrity of the current investigation."
In a letter to The Washington Post, Duncan wrote that Wake's actions were "troubling" and that school boards should "fully consider the consequences before taking such action."
"How can we expect a report coming from them to be objective when the Secretary of Education has stated that he disagrees with what we're doing?" school board Chairman Ron Margiotta said in an interview Tuesday.
Jim Bradshaw, an Education Department spokesman , said that Duncan's "letter speaks for itself and will have no bearing on the investigation."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4534