Now, a new battle is heating up, brought to a head by the Wake County school board’s plan to end the system’s efforts to ensure that poor and higher-income students aren’t educated in isolation from each other.
Wake–the largest district in the state–would be the latest of many school systems across the state and the nation to abandon policies designed to keep schools racially and economically diverse, in favor of school choice and neighborhood schools.
“We’re no longer going to sit back and watch our schools, without any challenge, go back to segregation,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “‘Separate but equal’ does not work. We know that.”
Last month, the NAACP filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Education, saying that schools in Wayne County had violated the Civil Rights Act by educating poor, black children in schools with virtually no white students. Barber said it could be a sign of what’s to come in other counties, including Wake, if it returns to neighborhood-based assignment and allows schools in poor parts of the county to resegregate.
Home to Goldsboro and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Wayne County is 58 percent white. The public school population is about 44 percent white, 37 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and about 6 percent mixed race or Asian. Eight of the 31 public schools have fewer than 20 percent white students. Nine schools are more than 60 percent white.
Segregation is most stark in the city of Goldsboro, where most schools are overwhelmingly black and poor.
Barber said he also thinks that racially segregated schools violate some students’ right to a sound, basic education, which is guaranteed under the state constitution.
That constitutional argument was successful for students from rural counties, who sued the state in 1994, claiming that their schools failed to provide the same quality of education available in more prosperous counties. A decade later, a Wake County judge ordered the state to improve quality in poor, rural schools.
Barber says he is meeting with lawyers regularly and, tonight, he will meet in downtown Raleigh with members of Wake’s NAACP chapters to discuss strategies for fighting resegregation.
Margiotta [Wake school board Chairman Ron Margiotta] said the NAACP is making premature threats. He said the school board doesn’t yet know what a new assignment plan will look like, but he said that it will not intentionally segregate students and that it will focus on helping poor and minority students improve academic performance.
Board member John Tedesco said the NAACP is mired in a time when an emphasis on race was needed to overcome the vestiges of legal segregation. Now, he said, Wake has transcended race, and the board must focus on academic achievement, which still lags among poor students.
According to the district’s own statistics, the graduation rate for Wake students receiving free and reduced-price lunch is 54 percent, compared with an overall rate of 78 percent.
Re-energizing an issue
In the past decade, federal courts have lifted busing orders imposed in the 1960s, and some districts that continued race-based busing faced legal challenges. While the practice has not been universally banned, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice struck down individual race-based busing plans.
Those decisions prompted the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system to return to community schools, while Wake moved to a busing plan based on income.
Wake as a bellwether
Keith Sutton, a Wake school board member who supports the district’s current diversity policy, said he sees the NAACP’s efforts in Wayne as a warning to Wake County. He said ending busing could make Wake a flashpoint for a national battle.
John Hood, head of the conservative John Locke Foundation, said the NAACP might have a case against a district that purposely routes black and white students into different schools. But he said Barber cannot claim that racial balance in schools is legally required.
Hood, who supports the Wake board’s plan to end busing for economic diversity, said it is time to abandon the idea that schools are responsible for erasing racial divisions, and focus on issues that concern most parents: academic achievement and assignment stability.