Take the leader of the Wake County school board’s move to end the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in school assignment. One minute he’s ranting online about the “liberal agenda of Forced Bussing” (sic) and the next he’s claiming that his work to dismantle Wake County’s socioeconomic integration plan is the modern equivalent of the anti-segregation work of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education.
A recent newspaper column by a Raleigh conservative took a similarly contradictory approach. On the one hand, it celebrated the narrow school board majority’s “different set of beliefs” and lobbed rhetorical hand grenades at their opponents that would have resonated with Wallace, Helms or Nixon. Then it attempted to defend the board majority’s action by claiming that it’s really an effort to respond to the fact that Wake’s current system does a bad job of helping poor and minority kids.
The gist of both men’s argument can be summarized as follows:
“The performance of poor and minority kids in Wake County has slipped in recent years and is well-below where caring people would like to see it. During this period, socioeconomic diversity has been a factor in school assignment in the Wake County Public School system. Therefore: a) Wake County should re-segregate or b) Re-segregation won’t make any difference and is therefore just fine if the people in charge want to do it. This is especially true since the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system appears to have made up some lost ground to Wake in some areas in recent years even as it was re-segregating its schools”.
This is like an oncologist saying the following:
“After making some progress under chemotherapy X, my cancer patient has suffered some setbacks in recent weeks. I therefore draw the conclusion that a) all chemotherapy is worthless and should be discontinued and/or b) that it doesn’t really matter whether I administer chemo or not. This is especially true in light of the fact that a cancer patient in another town actually made some short term health gains at the same time that he gave up all treatment and started smoking again.”
The truth of the matter, of course, is that many re-segregation critics have long acknowledged that the Wake schools are far from perfect. Student discipline policies in Wake County have pretty clearly been biased against poor and minority kids. Explosive growth and a reduced adherence to diversity goals in recent years have also taken their toll. There are other noteworthy problems.
Still, things are still a heck of a lot better than they were several decades ago when perhaps a quarter of poor and minority children were graduating in the Jim Crow era.
And just because the current system is flawed and has suffered some recent setbacks is no reason to throw out a key policy that was widely acknowledged to be an important part of decades of progress. One might just as well draw the conclusion that the schools ought to do away with free and reduced price lunches for poor kids. After all, they’ve been in place the last few years too.
The solution, of course, is not to casually discard years of hard won progress because of a rough patch, but to stop, take a moment, and honestly assess where we are and what ought to come next. Such an assessment is precisely what the board majority opponents have asked for - i.e., real analysis, real dialogue, and real collaboration.
Are there improvements to the Wake school assignment system that could be made?
Undoubtedly. Indeed, such improvement might well include a renewed commitment to socioeconomic diversity - something that had waned during the last decade as explosive growth overtook the county.
Do the Wake schools have things to learn from Charlotte-Mecklenburg (and other places as well)? Certainly. But to pretend that that some short-term fluctuations in the comparative performances of the two systems provides license for a wholesale abandonment of socioeconomic integration in Wake (and, indeed that such a course is being pursued for the benefit of poor and minority kids) is, at best, self-delusion and, at worst, cynical dishonesty.
The bottom line: Conservative activists can’t have it both ways. They can’t rely upon highly charged code words like “neighborhood schools” and pursue an uncompromising, “no holds barred” approach that seeks to radically remake a successful school system without even stopping to perform an honest assessment of the situation and then claim they’re pursuing such a path to help poor and minority kids. They may succeed in deceiving themselves, but in the long run, most people will see past the façade.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch