Raleigh, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education defended its actions Tuesday as part of a federal civil rights investigation. In a response to an inquiry from the Office for Civil Rights, the board wrote that decisions about how to assign students to the 163 schools across the county were not "motivated by racial animus."
The state NAACP has expressed concerns that changing Wake County's student assignment policy from one that emphasizes economic diversity to one that prioritizes putting students in schools closer to home will concentrate poor students into schools in poor communities. As part of its ongoing protest against that change, initiated by the board in February 2009, the state NAACP filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.
The OCR asked the school system to provide data in response to the complaint allegations and issue a detailed narrative response. In Tuesday's 42-page response, the board wrote that although Wake schools have been praised in the media and from some national education leaders, including U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, opinions within the county have been "decidedly mixed."
The board cited long bus rides, frequent reassignments, "the absence of evidence that diversity busing helps low-income students," and "a culture of low expectations resulting from labeling low-income children as 'at risk'" as reasons the diversity policy was abandoned.
Federal investigators visited Wake County earlier this month to interview school leaders and staff. They are scheduled to return for meetings with school board members next week, according to district spokesman Michael Evans.
A Department of Education spokesman characterized the visits as "neutral fact-finding" and doesn’t imply the OCR believes the complaint has merit. OCR's investigative process generally includes on-site meetings, interviews and gathering data, said Jim Bradshaw of the Department of Education press office.
After the February 2009 vote to change the student assignment policy, the school board endured months of heated debate about the change, including a meeting that was disrupted by the arrests of 19 people in July.
The board made little progress in implementing a new assignment policy and, after hiring a new superintendent in January, deferred to him to develop a plan.
Superintendent Tony Tata has temporarily reassigned six members of his staff to devote themselves entirely to implementing the school system’s new student assignment policy.
"I asked for, and was given, the responsibility of developing a student assignment plan," he said. "Our team is creating a long-term, comprehensive proposal that includes the input that we have received from all segments of this community representing all points of view."
Tata's plan is expected sometime later this spring. It is widely expected to draw on the suggestions of the Wake Education Partnership and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.
Those groups hired Boston-based consultant Michael Alves to craft a plan that would give Wake County families a choice of schools while focusing on the academic achievement mix of students attending each school.
"It is possible to have choice and stability and proximity and student achievement and have it all in one student assignment plan," said Tim Simmons of the Wake Education Partnership. "You do not have to trade off one for another."
On Tuesday, another advocacy group, Great Schools in Wake, issued a joint report with the NC Justice Center questioning whether the so-called "Alves plan" would do enough to assure student performance.
"If proximity is the most important variable in how you assign students, I think we know that does not lead to schools or teaching environments that are the most successful," said Yevonne Brannon of Great Schools in Wake.
The group, which has historically supported the "diversity" policy of student assignment, suggested again Tuesday that the current model be revised rather than abandoned. “We believe that the Wake County public schools’ student assignment staff has the knowledge, talent and good judgment needed to fine tune our current node-based system and create greater stability in assignment," they wrote.