Economic segregation is the challenge for our time. A school district is asking for trouble if it allows its poorest kids to be warehoused in one or two schools while the students from middle- and upper-income backgrounds occupy the rest.
Depressed economic standing is nearly as formidable a barrier to a quality education as any segregationist was to black students in the last century.
The county school district in Raleigh, N.C., recognized this more than 10 years ago and set out to do something about it. In 2000, the Wake County School District established goals to ensure it didn’t push all its poor students into a couple of inner-city schools that would likely struggle compared to their sister institutions in the more affluent suburbs.
The goal in Wake County was no school would have more than 40 percent of its student body receiving free or reduced-lunch vouchers. Magnet schools specializing in various subjects were dotted across the district; they were the draw to help diversify the district.
In 2005, The Anniston Star’s John Fleming took a close look at Wake County. Bill McNeal, then the superintendent, listed the ingredients for the district’s success: vision, leadership, courage and creativity.
A 2007 graduation-rate survey of large school districts ranked Wake County 17th in the nation. Yet the achievement gap between blacks and whites remained a stubborn problem, just as it is in so many other parts of the country.
“Now we’ve managed to do it here,” McNeal said in 2005. “But you can tell those people in Anniston and Calhoun County that if they want an outstanding system, they have to be strong and stand up and explain how shared sacrifices are going to pay big dividends in the future.”
The courage to boldly improve its schools has ebbed in Wake County. As a Washington Post article this week points out, Wake County’s groundbreaking experiment is being abandoned. The blame goes to local North Carolina Tea Partiers, supported by the same big-money financiers who supported radical candidates across the nation in November.
In Raleigh, a voting bloc of Tea Party candidates is dismantling the economic diversity plan, vowing to end what it calls “forced busing.”
Critics warn that the district will pay for its know-nothing conservatism. “It’s not as if this is a new idea, ‘Let’s experiment and see what happens when poor kids are put together in one school,’” Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told the Post. “We know. The results are almost always disastrous.”
True. Any curious Tea Party Animal need only come to Calhoun County to see the results of a Balkanized set of school districts and schools that by doing nothing to tackle socioeconomic disparities are letting their ill effects drag down performance. That is your future, Wake County, N.C.