Wake County’s efforts to balance schools by income kept it more diverse than other large North Carolina school systems and also helped to reduce the achievement gap between white and black students, according to a new Duke University study.
The study compared racial segregation in five school systems – Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cumberland, Guilford and Winston-Salem/Forsyth – that abandoned race-based student assignment strategies. Wake switched in 2000 to trying to balance the percentages of students receiving subsidized lunches in its schools while the other districts moved to neighborhood schools and choice.
“While we found some decline in the degree of racial diversity associated with Wake County schools after adoption of the socioeconomic plan versus the prior race-based plan, there was significantly less diversity in the school districts that were not using either plan,” said William A. Darity Jr., Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy in the Sanford School at Duke, in a press release.
Other findings of the study, which were published online Nov. 27 in the journal “Urban Education,” include
▪ Wake County’s math and reading scores rose slightly and the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed after the switch;
▪ In the four other districts, scores fell among black students after race-based school assignment stopped;
▪ It’s not possible say whether Wake’s new assignment policy alone caused test score gains or reduced the achievement gap.
But Monique McMillian. the study’s lead author and an associate professor at Morgan State University in Maryland, said in the release that that the study provides “tentative evidence that income-based assignment policies improve achievement and increase diversity.”
The study looked at data from 1992 to 2009 when Wake was still actively busing students for first racial and then later socioeconomic diversity. It’s worth noting that in 2009, and still the case now, that Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s black students outperform Wake’s black students on many state tests.
The Wake’s school board’s former Republican majority dropped the wording about diversity from the assignment policy in 2010. The Democratic board majority reinserted wording in 2012 saying that one of the goals is to minimize high concentrations of students from low-income families at each school.
But Wake has focused more on using choice – such as increasing the number of magnet schools – instead of involuntary school assignments to achieve diversity.