North Carolina voters who want to reduce school segregation should elect Democrats to school boards, although it could increase white flight, according to a new study co-authored by a Duke University professor.
The paper, released Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that Democratic school board members in North Carolina reduced school segregation more than non-Democrats by revising attendance boundaries. The study also found that electing just one Democratic school board member leads to reduced racial segregation in schools.
“We’re just trying to say that school boards matter and one particularly important dimension of school boards is their political affiliation,” Hugh Macartney, an economics professor at Duke who co-wrote the paper, said in an interview. John D. Singleton, an economics professor at the University of Rochester in New York, is the co-author.
But Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation, said he’d hate for people to come away from the study thinking Republican school board members want to segregate schools.
“It’s possible that Republicans are pursuing integration policies that don’t pursue student assignment boundary changes, such as school choice policies, magnet school policies,” he said. “Just because they don’t buy into attendance boundary changes doesn’t mean they believe in segregated schools.”
Macartney said he was inspired to do the study based on what happened in Wake County when a Republican majority took control of the school board in 2009 on a platform that called for neighborhood schools.
For years Wake had been nationally recognized for its efforts to try to keep school enrollments diverse, but some parents complained that their children were not sent to the nearest school.
Amid protests and arrests at meetings, the GOP board dropped the goal of trying to keep school populations diverse and reassigned large numbers of low-income students to schools closer to their homes.
In 2011, Democrats regained control of the Wake school board and restored the goal of not having too many low-income students at individual schools. But the Democratic-led board hasn’t aggressively reassigned students to promote diverse enrollments, citing issues such as community opposition to busing.
Wake now buses fewer students for diversity and has more high-poverty schools than before the 2009 election.
“Having lived through that period, most people who looked at Wake County would say (the study) is not surprising,” said Andy Taylor, an N.C. State political science professor who co-authored “The End of Consensus,” a book looking at Wake County and student assignment.
Most North Carolina school board elections are nonpartisan, but Republican state lawmakers have passed multiple bills in the past several years to increase the number of partisan contests. After this year’s legislation, 35 of the state’s 113 elected school boards will have partisan elections, according to the N.C. School Boards Association.
The study looked at North Carolina school board elections between 2008 and 2013 and matched candidates with their political party registration. It determined that 61 percent of the state’s school boards have Democratic majorities.
The study also looked at school attendance boundaries and determined that electing Democratic school board members led to reductions in school segregation.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that Republicans and independents are actively working to perpetuate segregation outcomes, but, on a relative basis, Democrats have a preference to reduce segregation,” Macartney said.
At the same time, the study found a connection between an increase in Democratic school board members and a reduction in the percentage of white students. Macartney said the data could show those districts are seeing an increase of minority students moving in, or white students are moving to other districts or choosing alternatives such as private schools, charter schools and home schools.
“The ‘white flight’ out of the district or public system appears to be driven primarily by a change in the political majority of a board,” the study says.
The study’s findings aren’t surprising considering the “pro-segregation” legislation sponsored by Republican state lawmakers, according to Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the liberal N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. Nordstrom cited examples such as bills allowing towns to set up charter schools and a study committee looking at how to break up large school districts.
“Voters should know that segregated schools harm students,” Nordstrom said. “Integrated schools help all students, not just those from low-income families. Voters should look for candidates of either party who are dedicated to improving school integration in this state.”