Keeping Wake schools diverse is worth extra snow days

Snow and ice, even in small amounts, can pose major transportation challenges for a school system as large and as far-flung as Wake County’s.

Now some are suggesting a way to reduce school closings because of inclement weather: break up the system. With smaller districts, they say, students would be closer to their schools and transportation decisions would be based on local road conditions, rather than conditions on the other side of the county.

The Wake County public school system certainly invites questions about its size. With 160,000 students, it’s the largest school system in the state and the 15th largest in the nation. Those students are spread over a county of 857 square miles, about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. That size does contribute to more days off for inclement weather — seven so far this school year because of hurricanes and snow. Too many lost days can lead to a reduction in spring break or a need for Saturday classes.

But all that said, smaller is not better for the Wake school system. It’s big to serve a big idea — public schools should be integrated.

That was the theme of a thread on Twitter Sunday as the school system countered the idea of splitting wake schools into two or more districts. “Without countywide school assignments, we would have school segregation,” Wake tweeted. “Segregated schools are bad for students and bad for our community.”

“Love this thread!” added Lisa Kaylie, a parent in neighboring Chapel Hill, in her tweet. “Public schools using a snowstorm to educate. Thank you @WCPSS! #NCED.”

Until the mid-1970s, Wake County had two school systems. One served the city of Raleigh. The other served the rest of Wake County. Compared to the county system, the Raleigh schools had far more black students.

When a proposal to merge the systems was put to a vote in a nonbinding 1973 referendum, it was rejected by more than a 2-1 margin. But educators, business leaders and elected officials successfully pressed the General Assembly to allow a merger and the city and county schools boards voted to merge beginning on July 1, 1976.

That vote may rank as the greatest accomplishment in the county’s history. Not only were schools improved for all races and incomes, but the single-system spurred the housing market, curbed “white flight” from Raleigh and boosted business since no matter where families bought a home, their children could attend the same school system.

The merger created a school system praised for the quality and the diversity of its schools. That helped make Wake County one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation and contributed to its towns and cities landing spots on best-places-to-live lists.

Now the merger’s momentum is beginning to fade and segregation is beginning to reemerge. Competition from 24 Wake County charter schools, more private schools and home schooling has slowed the school system’s once roaring growth.

As growth has slowed minority students — primarily black and Hispanic — have become the majority. Forty-two years after the historic merger, some Wake schools are more than 90 percent black.

Members of the Wake County Board of Education and top school administrators continue to make racial and economic diversity a priority, but they have backed off aggressive schools reassignment and busing plans. Instead, they support an extensive system of magnet schools and a general commitment to quality — including one of the highest teacher pay supplements in the state.

Wake County has developed and maintained good public schools in which part of the children’s education education is learning about their fellow human beings of all races and backgrounds. It’s worth accepting an occasional extra day off to operate a school system that embraces all of Wake County’s children.