Raleigh, N.C. — The NAACP filed a complaint late Friday against Wake County schools, arguing that a move toward a community-based student assignment policy violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The complaint asks the U.S. Justice Department and the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education to overturn an effort by a five-member majority on the Wake County Board of Education to replace a decade-old student assignment policy that included a focus on socioeconomic diversity.
"We must fight re-segregation and demand high-quality, constitutional, diverse, well-funded education for all our children," State NAACP President Rev. William Barber said at a gathering at Christian Faith Baptist Church in Raleigh Saturday. "We believe this kind of disparity is illegal and must be challenged."
Opponents of the change believe will lead to re-segregation, high teacher turnover and a lower quality of education for low-income students. Supporters argue that the move, still months away, will help improve test scores and enable parents to be more involved in their children's education.
A draft map released by Aug. 31 creates 16 student-assignment zones around 21 current or planned high schools. Zones would be grouped into five regions. The school board cautions that the map is fluid and is just a basis for discussions going forward.
The NAACp has been a leading critic of the change, and the group's national president, Ben Jealous, backed the complaint against the school system.
"The county deserves a plan that works," Jealous said in Raleigh Saturday. "It has one. Let's get back to that, so we can tackle the tough issues that still need to be dealt with."
Wake County Board of Education Chair Ron Margiotta, thought, said that it's time for change. He pointed to low graduation rates and test scores as proof that the old student assignment policy wasn't working.
"That last plan, I'd have to admit, was a a public relations success, but was an academic failure," Margiotta said.
Along with the NAACP, the complaint was filed by a Wake County youth group called Heroes Emerge Among Teens and Quinton White, an 18-year-old student who was transferred from the high school he had been attending until this year.
The complainants seek to prove intentional discrimination on the part of the board, that the new policies backed by the board would disproportionately harm nonwhites and that Wake schools’ discipline policies have been enforced in a discriminatory manner. The motion is based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on basis of race, color and national origin.
The NAACP cited the April 6 decisions to reassign students who live in southeast Raleigh from Garner High School and from Stough Elementary School to Lacy Elementary School. The civil rights group also presented its own research that 94 percent of students expelled by Wake schools in the last five years have been black, although blacks make up roughly a quarter of the student population. That research predates last year’s school board elections, which created the 5-4 majority that favors ending the socioeconomic diversity program.
The next step in such complaints usually involves the federal agency asking the responding party – in this case, the school board – for information, followed by an investigation.
Barber said the complainants have amassed a vast amount of evidence to back up their claims and hopes to bring Wake County residents to meet soon with Department of Education officials in Washington, D.C. The NAACP is holding a march in the national capital next Saturday.
Margiotta said that the cost of the upcoming legal battle will hurt schools.
"Those same dollars could be used to keep teachers in the classroom. It's going to be a very expensive suit to defend," Margiotta said.
Filing a complaint is only the first legal challenge the NAACP is prepared to make, Barber said. He didn't rule out the possibility of a state or federal lawsuit and said that the NAACP has developed legal strategies with the help of lawyers with North Carolina Justice Center, UNC Center for Civil Rights, Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Barber said that he will pursue "every means of direct action" whether "in the streets or in the suites."