Wake County should be wary as legislature eyes school district splits

Students at the Wakefield High School Ninth-Grade Center head to the buses to go home in this 2016 file photo.
Students at the Wakefield High School Ninth-Grade Center head to the buses to go home in this 2016 file photo. cseward@newsobserver.com

State Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican and co-chair of a new state legislative study committee that will look at the best ways to break up North Carolina school districts, is telling supporters of large districts such as Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg not to worry.

Brawley said at the opening of the study committee’s first meeting last week that the emphasis will be on studying, not acting. He said, “We do not intend to generate bills to break up big districts.”

Despite that assurance, Wake County should worry. If the committee is not considering the break up of large districts, what is it considering? Breaking up smaller ones? With the convening of this committee, the nose of the district break-up camel is officially in the tent. And if public school supporters aren’t vigilant, the rest of the camel will be in soon enough.

The General Assembly is not an academic body. The majority party doesn’t decide to gather information for its own sake. This committee is supposedly looking at the possible cost savings and improvements in school performance that might come with smaller districts. But by raising the break-up issue, the panel also will test the public’s willingness to make a major retreat on school integration.

Mergers and integration

The story of successful integration in North Carolina is the story of mergers. In most cases, it was county school systems merging with urban systems that had a high percentage of black students. Other smaller districts merged primarily to be more financially efficient, but the resulting larger districts also increased the diversity of students enrolled. The state went from 167 school districts in the 1960s to 115 now. If anything, the legislature should be looking at saving money by merging more small districts. More than a dozen districts have fewer than 2,000 students.

Wake County and Raleigh city schools merged in 1976 despite strong opposition. The merger turned out to be good for integration and for the economy. With all Wake schools sharing a strong tax base, school quality improved, which made the county attractive for new businesses and residents.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the state’s second largest district after Wake, a merger also led to better integrated and better performing schools. But the system has drifted back toward resegregation.

Suburban residents frustrated with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have often talked about splitting the county into smaller districts. In Wake, some suburban residents also support breaking up the district – now the nation’s 15th largest with more than 160,000 students – so more students could attend schools closer to their homes.

Considering re-splitting

The disgruntled Mecklenburg parents brought their proposal for splitting the district to the General Assembly in 2005, but didn’t get a hearing. Now the general idea will be considered by the study committee. The committee was created by legislation whose main sponsors were Brawley and two other Republicans, Rep. John Bradford of Mecklenburg and Rep. Chris Malone of Wake.

At the committee’s opening meeting, legislative staff said that the state’s largest districts had the best graduation rates and end of grade test scores. Staff also said splitting districts could increase the state’s cost for funding schools.

Malone, a former Wake school board member, said after the meeting that Wake County should not fear a move to split its school district. “That’s not happening,” he said.

It shouldn’t even be considered. Wake County gained from its merger and it should be free to decide how it will continue as one system serving Wake County children of all races and incomes.