An Education in Black and White: Students in North Carolina Face Segregation
Tea Party-influenced school board in Raleigh, NC reverse their district’s segregation policies.
Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Little Rock Nine all held a hand in ending our country’s staunch segregation laws. Fast forward to today: While signs for “Coloreds Only” and “Whites Only” no longer hang over doors and water fountains, our country’s strides in desegregation are being threatened.
The Wake County School Board in Raleigh, North Carolina reversed several successful school diversity initiatives over the course of a few months -- diversity initiatives that heightened student achievement. This came as a result of the successful placement of Tea Party activists on the school board. Progressive organizations like The Brave New Foundation have reported that conservative billionaires the Koch brothers have funded campaigns that have led to the dismantling of desegregation policies.
The Wake County elections are an example of how conservative as well as neo-liberal reformers are backing candidates that either seek to eliminate government-sponsored diversity or who have de-prioritized diversity in lieu of their student achievement benchmarks.
Small-government, neighborhood advocacy groups do not see a role for the school board in establishing social policy. New age reformers seek to infuse new human capital with little regard for drawing people from the communities they serve.
Ultimately, the black and brown students who are directly impacted by these policies belong to families who are not represented (physically or politically) within these organizations’ agendas. Consequently, the education diversity goals that were established in Brown v. Board are systematically being abandoned. In other words, the poor are bad enough to be subjected to these agendas and not good enough to implement them.
Wake County seemed to find a solution to an age-old problem. For decades, per-pupil funding driven by property tax contributions led to disparate funding levels between districts. Because of the correlation between race and poverty, urban districts became intensely black, brown and poor. Highlighted in the landmark Brown v. Board decision, we know that socioeconomic diversity and school quality are connected. Wake County Public Schools sought to improve achievement through aggressive economic desegregation.
In the 1970s, Wake County combined the wealthier adjacent districts with the poorer ones. Learning from the many cases that failed to integrate based on race, Wake County took a different approach. In 2000, Wake County established a goal that no school would have more than 40 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Officials then created a choice system that maximized diversity. Busing and magnet schools were used to attract wealthy and poor students to underrepresented areas.
There are economic and social costs to choice programs. Transportation is chief among them. Time is certainly another. Busing does rob valuable time from students. In addition, as reported in the Washington Post, diffusing people of color in the overall portfolio of majority white schools should not be rewarded as an end.
Educational achievement must be an essential goal of these initiatives. While the achievement gap has improved in Wake County, no one can rightfully claim victory. However, according to a study conducted by the school board the overwhelming majority of families agreed with the delivery of schooling.
However, newly elected school board members backed by the Koch-funded conservative think tank, Americans for Prosperity, criticized the study claiming that families have grown weary of constant enrollment shifts and busing caused by the diversity goals. Subsequently, the new conservative majority on the board eliminated the former policies in spite of improvements and public approval.
Powerful organizations are planting candidates to influence education policy based on rigid ideology. This is nothing new. In fact, noted education reformer Michelle Rhee’s political rise looked like she stole pages from unions’ playbooks. Teach for America and other market-driven reformers pushed Rhee well beyond the public will, which led to her demise.
I’m not so naïve to think that all school board members in Wake County or elsewhere have all been historically independent thinkers. Nevertheless, political hopefuls who are backed by groups that can’t show the diversity of the people they seek to serve should be vetted and discounted. This is becoming more difficult. Conservatives’ penchant for accountability and choice has married neo-liberal reformers’ market-driven natures to form a massive voting bloc. Tea Party candidates and Teach for America representatives unfortunately often occupy the same political space and feed off each other’s agendas.
Again, if the organizations that back the candidates can’t display the kind of racial and socioeconomic diversity of the districts they wish to serve, then who exactly are we electing – the agenda of the funding organization or the individual?
Nevertheless, the electorate votes in school board members. Progressives are not pushing candidates who can infuse diversity within their efforts to improve the delivery of educational goods. Progressives have been criticizing education reform without uplifting people and ideas to counter conservative or neo-liberal agendas. Cynicism doesn’t improve schools. Hard working people do. Conspiracies don’t vote. Parents and teachers do. Until progressives answer their opponents’ charge to gain school board seats with viable candidates and reform plans, expect reform to be done to you, not by you.