Wake County downplays use of student reassignment to meet new school diversity goal

The Wake County school board is backing a new effort to reduce school segregation but says it’s not talking about using mass reassignment of students to achieve that goal.

The school board gave tentative approval Tuesday to a goal set by staff to move schools within range of the county average socioeconomically. This calls for switching to a system where every school would be assigned a score, based on Census data of their students, to determine their economic health.

Board members repeatedly said Tuesday that student assignment is only one of the strategies they can use to make schools more diverse.

“We’re not talking about shuffling students like pawns,” school board chairman Jim Martin said in an interview. “The targets are here to understand the challenges.”

Other strategies that will be discussed over the next few months include looking at which schools could become magnet schools, whether before- and after-school care can be expanded and whether transportation changes should be made. The district will also look at how it can market itself as it faces competition from charter schools and home-schools.

“How do we find the right balance of choice and cost?” Martin said. “That’s why we’re coming back to the idea of choice with purpose. We have to look at our transportation. We have to look at our academic programming.”

Wake County has historically been known as a leader in school integration. But schools in the district have become more segregated in recent years.

The board agreed in June to set a new diversity goal and directed administrators to come up with a proposal for how it would be accomplished.

On Tuesday, administrators proposed giving every school an average score based on the Wake County Economic Health Index. That index uses Census data such as median household income, households receiving food stamps, whether rent and household mortgages are greater than 30% of income and how many people are living within 100 to 200% of the federal poverty level.

To ease privacy concerns, school leaders said they’re looking at data at the Census block level and not data for individual students.

Board members signed off on using the new “economic health index.”

Staff also proposed a goal of getting elementary schools within 20 percentile points of the county average. It would be 15 points for middle schools and high schools.

Currently, 26% of elementary schools, 37% of middle schools and 42% of high schools don’t meet that proposed target.

Student assignment staff will present the first draft of the 2020-21 student assignment plan in September. But Martin said that the new goal won’t have a major impact on that plan.

Martin said it will take community buy-in and time to make the changes. Administrators proposed giving five years for reaching the goals.

“This work is about so much more than assignment,” Martin said. “This is about opportunity creation. Our job is to make every school in Wake County the first and best choice.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.