Wake group warns of ending school diversity policy

Posted March 17, 2010 2:37 p.m. EDT
Updated March 17, 2010 6:55 p.m. EDT

— A local group of parents and business leaders said Wednesday that the consequences of ending the Wake County Public School System's longstanding student assignment policy could be dangerous.

The Great Schools in Wake Coalition held a news conference in Raleigh in which education researchers from Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill presented their opinions based on years of research.

Schools with students from lower-income families would not be able to attract or retain high-quality, experienced teachers, because the schools would not be able to compensate with higher salaries, the researchers said.

"What we found in North Carolina is that the differences between high poverty and more affluent schools had been growing over time," said Helen Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke.

The majority of the Wake County Board of Education wants to implement an assignment model in which students go to schools within a certain community zone.

The plan in place now buses students across the school district to help achieve socio-economic diversity, where no school has more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

Kathleen Brown, an associate professor at UNC's School of Education, said it's still too soon to say what the school board's concept would do – a plan isn't even in the developmental stages – but that re-segregation is a danger.

"If we can somehow figure out neighborhood schools that work with an integration policy, that's fine," she said. "Let's keep talking. Let's keep the conversation going and figure this out. Let's just not go one way or another."

The school board voted this month to begin planning for the phase-out of the diversity policy. A second and final vote, expected next Tuesday, will give permission to proceed developing an implementation plan. That's expected to take about nine to 15 months.

But Patty Williams, with Great Schools, said it's inevitable that schools will become segregated again.

"We have taken our eyes off the prize, which is student achievement, and we're looking at student assignment" she said. "There's a problem with that."

Supporters of the school board's plan disagree.

"It has nothing to do with diversity," said Kristen Stocking, co-founder of Wake Schools Community Alliance. "It's about strengthening communities."

Stocking says busing students far from home has created instability. Under the current plan, students' schools can potentially change each year. Supporters have also said that, by moving students, their individual needs might not be met.

"The children who are most in need of specialty resources are being uprooted from their communities and put into communities where they don't have stability," Stocking said.

Supporters have also pointed to the school system's declining graduation rate as an example that the current system doesn't work.

Wake County's graduation rate dropped from 82.6 percent in 2006 to 78.4 percent last year, and the decline has been especially pronounced among minority and low-income students.