Student assignment has been a contentious issue in Wake County for decades, leading to protests and arrests at school board meetings that helped put the national media spotlight on the Triangle.
A new book, “The End of Consensus,” looks at the way diversity and neighborhood schools have affected student assignment in Wake County, particularly from 2000 to 2012. The book explores how concerns about assignment led to the 2009 election of a Republican school board majority that promised sweeping changes, and the heated pushback by opponents.
In 2011, Democrats regained control of the school board and restored diversity as an assignment goal. But the board has held back from making large-scale reassignments.
The book’s authors, N.C. State professors Toby Parcel and Andy Taylor, talked about the events that led to the 2009 election and what’s happened in the aftermath.
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Q. What led to the end of consensus in 2009 for support for busing for diversity?
A. “By 2009, the people who were disparate felt galvanized and came together to challenge the status quo,” Taylor said.
The authors cite the creation of essentially mandatory year-round schools and sharp population growth that led to large numbers of students being reassigned in a process that families found to be arbitrary and cold. They also point to the increased activism locally of the Republican Party and a growing split in the community about the value of diversity.
Q. You surveyed 1,706 Wake County residents in 2011 on their views on assignment. What were some of the more surprising findings about assignment and diversity?
A. “Despite the characterization of western Wake as a hotbed of discontent, that really didn’t bear out on attitudes on any of those policy matters,” Taylor said. “If there were strong opponents, it tended to be more in the rural towns in the south and east of the county.”
Parcel said they didn’t anticipate the gender differences in the responses. For instance, women supported diversity as a principle for school assignment more than men.
Taylor said the belief held by white Raleigh liberals that it was newcomers who were driving the anti-status quo against the assignment policy wasn’t borne out. He said the study showed that how long a respondent had lived in Wake County and the South didn’t make any difference in attitudes about diversity.
Parcel said the survey found that affluent African Americans were more supportive of the diversity policy than lower-income African Americans. Historically, minority families have borne the brunt of the busing for diversity efforts.
“More affluent African Americans have more resources to deal with the challenges and uncertainties surrounding the assignment policy,” Parcel said. “Lower income African American households have fewer resources with which to manage the challenges and uncertainties of implementing the diversity policy. While it’s possible they favor that type of policy in theory, it’s more difficult for them to support it because of the obligations they have.”
Q. How much of an impact has that end of consensus had on the school system?
A. “While the Democrats are the majority on the school board, they have not reverted back to the frequent assignment and so forth of the 2009 board,” Parcel said. “That reflects their realization that families were concerned about the challenges, dangers and uncertainties of the earlier implementation of the assignment policy and they’re being more accommodating.”
Both Parcel and Taylor warn that Wake faces new challenges caused by demographic shifts that have helped make it a “majority-minority” school system. They say the school system needs to retain its middle-class character.
“The challenge for Wake County going forward is to retain middle-class families – regardless of race – in the district,” Parcel said. “If that doesn’t happen, the policies of attempting to fix public schools by family income will break down.”
Q. Is that consensus for diversity lost forever?”
A. “There may be a new consensus emerging, one that values diversity principles but is more realistic and more responsive to the challenges that families are facing in the 21st century.” Parcel said. “Many families are dual-income. Commuting distances have increased for families, so the new consensus that might exist is more multi-faceted than what we had prior to 2009.”
Taylor agreed, saying that the 2009 elections jolted the Democrats into both embracing diversity and having a realization of the practical implications of the principle. He added that it’s hard to call the 2011 and 2013 school board elections anything but a repudiation of what the Republican board majority had done.
“You can say diversity won,” he said. “Maybe neighborhood schools won in 2009, but certainly since then diversity has won.”
Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui
Find the book
Go to http://amzn.to/1QtL4Dy for more information on “The End of Consensus,” by Toby Parcel and Andy Taylor.