Wake schools need to stand by diversity

November 30, 2013 

Of the many and ever changing ideas of what’s needed for a quality public school there is nearly universal agreement on this: A school in which most of the students come from low-income families is less likely to perform well.

There are exceptions. Sometimes a visionary principal or a special benefactor can overcome the obstacles created by poverty and a school brimming with poor children can overachieve and even excel. But the predominant pattern is the greater the concentration of poverty, the lower the academic performance.

Breaking the link between poverty and low academic performance is the key to moving a public school system forward. And the best way to break it is to avoid letting schools become concentrations of poor children in the first place. That’s why it is disturbing that so many school systems are giving up on the goal of diverse schools, or being overwhelmed by the challenge of reaching it.

Now the concentration of poor and minority students is spreading in Wake County, a school system that was until recently a national example of how promoting economic diversity can foster academic quality across the system.

The News & Observer’s T. Keung Hui reported last Sunday that the county school system has seen a sharp increase in the past five years in schools in which at least half the students are receiving federally subsidized lunches. The number of such schools has jumped from 18 in 2008 to 46 in 2012 – nearly 30 percent of the county’s 165 schools. Meanwhile, schools with a single-digit percentage of low-income students have increased.

The recession and the ongoing poor economy along with Hispanic immigration account for some of the change. But another major force was a Republican-led school board that pushed for an end to diversity as a goal in school assignment. The Republicans pushed instead for students to attend schools closer to their homes. That change meant schools would come to reflect localities rather than the overall county population.

Voters put pro-diversity members back in charge of the school board in the elections of 2011 and 2013, but a return to the majority apparently will not mean a return to the prior goal of no schools with over 40 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Traditionally, the school board used the reassignments needed to fill new schools as an occasion to use diversity as part of the new assignments. But with no new schools to be filled next year, the only way the board can push back against the growing income – and generally racial – separation would be to reassign solely for purposes of balancing school populations.

Such a direct approach is one pro-diversity board members think would be counter productive. After two years of heated confrontations over the Republican-led effort s to end diversity standards, current board members don’t want to reignite the fight. They support a year of cooling off as they consider other options for slowing the separation by income and races.

The situation presents a dilemma. Supporters of diversity won the battle with Republicans, but they are at risk of losing the war against the broader force of creeping re-segregation in U.S. schools. They are politically realistic to go slow now. After five years of neglecting diversity standards, the resulting rise in high-poverty schools cannot be halted by a school board fiat.

But the Wake school board also cannot accept a drift toward more separation. Wake County was an example to the nation. It showed how a local commitment could build quality on an ideal that no school should be burdened with the challenges of a student body made up predominantly of poor children.

Wake schools came a great way by promoting diversity. Voters have shown support for that philosophy. Wake County’s school board members must make it a top priority not to let that progress slip away and with it the futures of many students.

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