Is the Wake County School Board resegregating schools?

Ron Margiotta, chairman of the Wake County School Board


I used to live in a small town called Northbrook in Illinois, just north of Chicago. For all you Duke basketball fans, that’s also where Jon Scheyer is from. My family left Northbrook for Cary, North Carolina in 2002. When we moved down here, my younger brothers, my sister, and I protested in vain against this tyrannical decision by our parents, who were oh-so-clearly uprooting our lives just to spite us. (Okay, maybe they had our best interests at heart, but we disagreed back in 2002.)

One of those best interests, perhaps, was diversity. In Northbrook, most of my friends were white. It had nothing to do with a failure to seek out other black classmates; it was a matter of there not being any. I knew only four people (out of a grade of 65 and a school of 400) who weren’t white. In that tally, I’m including myself and my two brothers. Thankfully, when we moved to Cary, that number improved dramatically.

The only problem is that Cary is in Wake County. When we moved there in 2002, the Wake County Public School System was the second-largest school district in the state (it’s now the largest) and was noted for its “diversity policy.” In the 1970s, in order to integrate, Wake County’s schools (mostly white and suburban) merged with the Raleigh City School System (mostly black and urban). In order to actually make sure that all of the schools were integrated, the new WCPSS instituted a busing policy to transport students to schools that were, in some cases, farther away than their normal district school. The end result was an integrated school system that was eventually reputed as one of the best (if not the best) in the state. Due to a Supreme Court ruling that held assigning students to schools by race unconstitutional, the school board tweaked the policy to factor in socioeconomic status as a proxy to race (which was a smart move that has highlighted one of the hugest issues that we’re ignoring—the wealth gap).

There’s a reason my family chose Cary, out of all places in North Carolina. (We’d even considered Chapel Hill—but my parents, being Duke alumni, threw that idea out almost immediately.) The Raleigh/Cary area had a reputation as one of the best places in the entire country to live. Of course, that meant that we weren’t the only people with the idea to move there. Over the course of that decade, the Wake County Public School System became the largest in the state, larger than the Charlotte-Mecklenburg System.

With that came problems. The Wake County School System was reassigning students at record rates. Parents felt that they weren’t being given enough choice in their assignments. Somehow, the diversity policy became the scapegoat, even when the problem was clearly caused by the area’s explosive growth. In 2009, this sentiment collided full-force with the beginnings of what would soon become Tea Party activism. The unpalatable happened: Republicans won a majority of the school board and made it their aim to dismantle the diversity policy. And, after a series of 5-4 votes, it happened in the spring of 2010.

It was basically a battle between neighborhood schools and diversity, and neighborhood schools won. Never mind that anyone would be fortunate to go to school with people of all different backgrounds. Never mind that Wake County is a hotbed of diversity that we’re refusing to tap into. Never mind that the Wake County model was featured as an example of how to have a well-managed integrated school system. Never mind that 94% of parents were satisfied with their school. Never mind that reassignment numbers were slowly going down by themselves. Never mind the national controversy that erupted (even Stephen Colbert got in on the action). Never mind that, without diverse neighborhoods, a neighborhood school model destroys diversity. No, let’s make it so that a few kids don’t have to endure a thirty-minute bus ride where they can interact with friends, do their homework, and stay out of trouble.

The approach that the Republicans have taken attempts to solve a problem for one group by creating problems for another. Why is it that something like that sounds familiar? Oh, yeah, that’s the Tea Party’s standard operating procedure. It was not surprising, then, when the Washington Post broke the story that the Republicans on the school board are backed by the Tea Party. While the Tea Party is making headlines for throwing the debt burden on the poor and sparing the rich, the Republicans on the Wake County school board are taking the transportation burden off of the affluent, suburban, often white families and placing an academic burden on the poor, urban, often minority families. I’m still waiting for a valid explanation as to how this makes sense that doesn’t use the reasoning that black people are lazy and self-entitled and have a hair trigger on the word “racist.” Frankly, that’s insulting to all the hard-working African-Americans out there.

Another explanation that’s overdue: The old plan attempted to prevent schools from having a concentration of 40% low-income students or higher. The Republicans use the fact that schools often have higher concentrations of poverty than they’re supposed to as a reason to take down the policy—yet the policies they proposed would make no effort to correct this problem that they themselves highlighted. The problem would, in fact, worsen, since schools in poorer neighborhoods wouldn’t have the same parental contributions (either in time or in money) and wouldn’t be able to deliver the same education as a richer school. Oh, and because the rich tend to be able to influence any governmental organization better than the poor, guess which schools will be favored in any policy matter? Take into account that the school board is currently run by Republicans, the party that wants to throw the government’s debt burden on the poor instead of making the rich pay their fair share.

Like any other current political conflict, this became a gridlock situation. On October 5th of last year, Debra Goldman, one of the five Republicans, voted to kill the most prominent neighborhood schools plan. Make no mistake, she doesn’t condone the diversity policy. But it was a full 52 weeks before the next plan was put in front of the school board. It again favored proximity over diversity, though it allowed for more choice. This policy gives parents more freedom to make sure that their child is in a diverse school, but it also gives parents more freedom to make sure that their child is in a more segregated school. The plan includes a ranked list of high-performing schools and makes kids from low-performing schools the #5 priority to enroll in the better schools. The problem is that no seats are set aside for them in the first place. The #1 priority is the kids who live near the higher-performing schools, which makes sense but still takes care of the needs of the affluent and suburban families ahead of the poor and urban families.

On Tuesday, 5 members of the school board go up for election: chairman Ron Margiotta, the ringleader, is the only Republican up for election. The rest are Democrats—all four Democrats on the board. That means that there’s a slim chance that we can get the school board back to serving all of the people in its county, not just the ones in the affluent northern and western parts of Wake County (which, sadly, includes my beloved Cary). All four Democrats would have to win, and the voters of southwestern Wake would have to vote out Ron Margiotta.

It is imperative that we remember the racial issues at stake here. Remember that socioeconomic status is the unfortunately accurate proxy for race. By refusing to maintain the diversity policy (or even entertain any policies that emphasize diversity in the slightest), the Republican members of the school board are making a statement about which groups of people they value. It would be one thing if they came up with a policy that took the concerns of all parts of Wake County into account, but they have made it clear that any policy that emphasizes diversity is dead on arrival. My home is in Ron Margiotta’s district, but he (and the rest of his board majority), has absolutely failed to properly represent me, my family, his district, and all of the people in Wake County.

Published by Caitlin Cleaver

Class of 2014 Duke University in Durham, NC

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: