Diversity Policy Tossed; Tough Decisions Loom

T. Keung-Hui, and Thomas Goldsmith, News & Observer (Raleigh), May 19, 2010

With the school board’s vote Tuesday night to end its diversity policy, Wake County began a politically bruising slog to divide the county into community school zones.

The number of zones is undetermined. The cost of the new system is uncertain. And as the board’s majority fleshes out a plan to assign the district’s 140,000 students to schools as close as possible to their homes, it must fend off charges of resegregation by opponents who vow to keep fighting them.

The deeply divided board eliminated diversity as a goal in the assignment policy with a 5-4 vote, making family proximity to schools the priority. The fight about the diversity policy, which depends on the economic status of families, drew national attention as the majority reversed decades of policy.

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Chairman Ron Margiotta and members John Tedesco, Debra Goldman, Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett voted down last-ditch efforts by the board minority to include students’ economic status as an assignment factor, and ignored student protesters’ loud chants when the final vote came.

“Hey hey! Ho ho! Resegregation’s got to go!” about 20 protesters shouted.

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Changes will likely not take effect on a large scale until 2012-13. But members of the majority say the result will be greater family stability and choice, including better performance by low-income students.

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Numerous factors, including the state constitution and federal law, prevent Wake schools from resegregating, Tedesco said.

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Diversity backers vow fight

Along the way, supporters of the now-eliminated diversity policy vowed they will keep fighting the new board.

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For one thing, diversity supporters will begin to focus on next year’s school board elections, said Amy Lee, who has spoken in favor of the diversity policy at board meetings. Five of the nine seats will be on the ballot in 2011, including Margiotta’s.

Also, opposition to the current board will likely increase when members start drawing lines on a map to create the new system of zones that are to replace the old assignment policy, Lee said.

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More legal action possible

The board will also have to deal with the possibility of more legal action, like the lawsuit against two prior diversity votes that was dismissed by a judge on Friday. The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, is soliciting donations for legal fees and seeking out parents who’d be interested in being plaintiffs in a potential lawsuit against the school system.

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Old policy led to lots of busing

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, school board policy was to promote diversity by balancing the percentages of minority students at schools. A decade ago, the board switched to promoting diversity by balancing the percentages of low-income students.

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But last fall newly elected school board members attacked the diversity policy, citing poor test scores and graduation rates among low-income and minority students.

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As the meeting ended, Margiotta, the board chairman, said he’s been surprised at the level of emotion the entire debate has caused, given the long history of Wake families’ wanting more stability in student assignments.

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