Wake schools are, growing separate and unequal

Apex middle-school students head for their bus in Apex in this Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 file photo.
Apex middle-school students head for their bus in Apex in this Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 file photo. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The merger of the Raleigh and Wake County schools in 1976 was charged with race. The city schools had been increasingly enrolled with a larger percentage of minority students and the county schools were mostly white. The merger faced much public opposition, but Raleigh leaders including Tom Bradshaw, a still-active popular former mayor, and the late and legendary Willie York had gumption and pushed the issue up the hill. A steep hill.

Today, race and poverty still are defining issues in public education, evidenced by what appears to be the resegregation of Wake County schools. Once a model of diversity, and praised and emulated nationally for its efforts to achieve racial and economic balance in schools, the system is run by good people with bad choices.

As reported by The News & Observer’s Keung Hui and David Raynor, Wake is seeing more racial and economic imbalance, with some schools having huge percentages of students in the category of needing free and reduced-price lunches, something virtually all experts know is not good in terms of academic performance. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds do better if they are not isolated among themselves. And the board finds itself with suburban schools that are overwhelmingly white. That’s hardly what leaders had in mind with desegregated schools, which were supposed to expose students to a school “society” that was much like the one in which they’d live and work.

But the county school board is in a quandary not of its making. Economic diversity is one of the four “pillars” the board considered in approving a new but modest plan for reassigning students to newly opened schools. But the goal of diversity in schools is increasingly offset by housing patterns in which suburban communities, especially is western Wake, lack affordable housing and transportation options for low-income people.

Now the board is running out of tools that keep the housing patterns from being mirrored in the schools. Busing to help build economic diversity is still done, but less of it. Magnet schools have been used to draw students into areas that once would have had primarily minority schools, and they’ve worked pretty well, though they alone can’t halt a trend toward resegregation in a school district growing by 3,000 students a year.

The Wake school board, a progressive group, has to worry that returning to more busing would lead to parents pulling their kids from mainstream public schools and putting them into charters or private schools. This concern has produced a worrisome choice for school board members: Increase busing and reassignments and alienate some parents or hold busing to a minimum and accept a partial resegregation of schools.