Wake school board makes a bold move on diversity

Wake County’s school board members are elected officials, not teachers, but they’re committed to solveing public education’s toughest math problem — finding the right ratio of racial and economic diversity in public schools.

The board’s search for the answer — actually a renewed search for an answer to a problem once thought solved — is an admirable show of moral and political courage. Restoring racial and economic balance is a challenging undertaking in an era when the president stokes racial polarization. And it certainly isn’t a priority of the Republicans who rule the state legislature and aggressively push “school choice,” which fuels resegregation.

That political climate has not stopped Wake’s school leaders under school board chairman Jim Martin. They’re seeking to restore what was once a hallmark of Wake schools — a commitment to not letting schools divide into white and black and haves and have-nots. At a retreat last weekend, the board agreed to a goal of having all schools’ student populations within 20 percentage points of the county average socioeconomically.

Court rulings block schools from assigning students using racial quotas, but schools can use data on eligibility for free and reduced lunch that can come close to having the same effect. The board approved a statement that makes its goal plain: “Resegregation will not happen on our watch.”

Wake County sharply reduced racial inequality by merging the Raleigh and county school systems in the 1970s. The result wasn’t only better schools, but an economic boom as Wake’s good schools attracted businesses and newcomers.

Wake County received national praise for its commitment to promoting diversity through school assignments and busing. But that came to a halt in 2010 when a newly elected conservative board switched the emphasis in student assignment to “neighborhood schools.” Progressives soon took back the board, but they’ve been slow to go back to assigning students to promote diversity. Instead, they hoped magnet schools would do the job.

Magnets have helped draw students to schools beyond their local school, but the magnets’ effect has been partially offset by the growth of charter schools that disproportionately draw white and more affluent students. As a result, Wake’s traditional public schools are becoming more segregated. Martin said some schools are nearly 90 percent black or Hispanic and others are nearly 90 percent white and Asian. Forty percent of Wake’s schools fall short of the board’s new diversity goal.

Martin said in an interview that the solution is not “moving students like pawns on a chessboard.” Rather he said school assignment changes can take on “low hanging fruit,” such as schools that are located near each other, but have much different school populations.

How to get to the goal of diverse schools remains to be determined, but there is no uncertainty about the need to do it. Martin noted that the merger of the 1970s was voted down in a referendum, but leaders went ahead anyway because the county would be stymied if its schools were divided along racial lines.

“Business leaders and elected leaders realized it was a critical thing for the health of Wake County,” he said. “We believe the decisions we make now are going to set the course of Wake County for the next 40 or 50 years. It’s imperative that every school be a great school.”

Barnett: nbarnett@newsobserver.com, 919-829-4512.