Raleigh, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education released data last week that calls the school system's former busing for diversity practice into question, alleging it failed to close the achievement gap between white and minority students and placed "unfair burdens" on poor students.
The data was made public as part of an inquiry from the federal Office for Civil Rights, which launched an investigation into Wake's student assignment policy after the state NAACP expressed concerns that a neighborhood schools model would concentrate poor students into schools in poor communities.
In a response to the OCR inquiry, the school board argued that poor and minority students were subjected to "disproportionately long bus rides" under the district's former student assignment policy, which bused students to balance socioeconomic status levels in schools.
Data included in the school board's response shows that among students who were assigned to schools 10 to 15 miles from their homes last year, nearly 56 percent were black and just four percent were white.
On the other hand, among students who were assigned within five miles of their home, nearly 54 percent were white, 11 percent Hispanic and 21 percent black.
School leaders also found "a strong correlation between long bus rides and low academic performance" in black students.
Black students who attended school within 7 miles of their home last year had an academic proficiency rate between 49 and 57 percent. But those numbers dropped sharply as the distance between a student's school and home increased.
Students who attended school 10 to 11 miles from home had a 32.5 percent academic proficiency rate and those 15 to 16 miles from home were rated just under 24 percent.
As a result of this data, the board concluded that the use of socioeconomic status in student assignment "has not resulted in marked educational benefits but has imposed unfair burdens on poor and minority students," the response stated.
The response also compared academic achievement data in Wake schools with similar-sized school districts that do not use socioeconomic status as a student assignment factor.
Over the last three years, graduation rates for black males were 15 to 23 percent higher in Guilford County schools than in Wake, which also falls below the state average.
Last year, 53.4 percent of black males graduated in Wake County, 59.6 percent graduated statewide and 69 percent graduated in Guilford County schools.
End-of-grade proficiency tests showed similar trends among black and low-income students.
Black students in Wake schools had a 48.4 percent end-of-grade test proficiency rate last year, compared to 49 percent in Guilford County and 51.6 percent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
Among poor students, end-of-grade proficiency rates were 47.2 percent in Wake, 48.8 percent in Guilford and 51.3 percent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Supporters of the school system's former busing for diversity policy have often pointed to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district as an example of a system that suffered from low academic achievement and became re-segregated after abandoning its diversity policy a decade ago.
Federal investigators are scheduled to return for meetings with school board members this week, according to district spokesman Michael Evans. They visited Wake County in March to interview school leaders and staff.
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.
In light of heated debate amongst board members and within the community, the board has deferred to new Superintendent Tony Tata to develop a student assignment plan.
Tata has temporarily reassigned six members of his staff to devote themselves entirely to implementing the school system’s new student assignment policy.