In Wake County, a school crisis and a choice about our direction

At a 2010 Wake County school board meeting, protesters shouted, ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, resegregation has to go.’
At a 2010 Wake County school board meeting, protesters shouted, ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, resegregation has to go.’ ehyman@newsobserver.com

The national economy is recovering, and Wake County is returning to its pre-recession boom. Home sales are surging, the school system is growing by 3,000 students a year and downtown Raleigh is at the epicenter with a thriving nightlife and thousands of new residential units coming on line.

But these good times are not the same. As Wake revives economically, it’s showing signs of illness as a community. Its housing is increasingly segregated by income, and its school system of more than 150,000 students – once nationally praised for its healthy mix of races and incomes – is increasingly resegregating. More schools have a daunting percentage of students whose family income qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch and the students are predominantly black and Hispanic. Students and schools in new and affluent suburbs are overwhelmingly white and well-off.

A recent News & Observer report on the trend included these troubling statistics: Since 2008, the number of schools where at least 70 percent of the students are receiving subsidized lunches has gone from none to 12. Additionally, 24 Wake schools have populations where black and Hispanic students make up at least 70 percent of the enrollment, compared with 12 schools in 2008. During that period, black and Hispanic enrollment has increased by 3 percentage points to 41 percent.

This is a pattern occurring in public schools across the nation. The push for neighborhood schools breaks down assignment plans that fostered diversity, and the push for “school choice” – including more charters and vouchers for private schools – offers more exits for parents who want to opt out of traditional public schools that become islands of poor and minority students.

But what is true of so many school systems in the nation does not have to be true in Wake County. In the 1970s, leaders with vision saw the moral rightness, the educational value and the economic power of a racially and economically balanced school system. They led the merger of the mostly white county school system with a city school system marked by many overwhelmingly black schools.

The result was a well-funded school system in which all the county had a stake. The schools excelled, not in pockets, but in general. And that school system became a magnet for newcomers and new businesses. Wake’s first boom was ignited by the merger. The current one will be undone by letting that consensus fall apart.

The hour has arrived for Wake County to have a hard and honest conversation with itself. Does it want to be distinctive in the diversity and broad success of its schools? Or will it go with the tide, let segregation return and accept that some Wake schools are excellent and many are so burdened by poverty that the culture of learning devolves into a daily scramble to cope?

This is not a conversation for the school board alone. Its members are capable and committed people of good will, but they by themselves cannot – and shouldn’t be expected to – assert the values and set the direction of the entire county. The school board must have the backing of a broad cross-section of the county as it moves to ensure diversity. And it must have the help of other local elected officials in addressing the housing patterns and transportation issues that are cleaving the county school system into two worlds.

It is time now as it was four decades ago for Wake County to decide what it will accept, what it will encourage and what it will become. It is time for a formal and full discussion that involves the school board, the county commissioners, Wake mayors, major employers such as WakeMed and Rex Hospital, faculty and administrators from N.C. State, real estate developers, the Wake Ed Partnership, the Chamber of Commerce, WakeUp Wake County, members of the clergy, parent groups and others.

Wake leaders can come together, or Wake schools can drift apart. There is no other choice. And without leadership now, there will soon be no choice.