Professor: Wake's diversity policy was trumped by growth

Posted April 27, 2010 9:53 p.m. EDT
Updated April 28, 2010 8:21 a.m. EDT

— The Wake County Public School System is attracting national attention as it tries to create a new way of deciding which students go to which schools and of trying to avoid high concentrations of poor students in some schools. Among the educators studying the board’s moves is University of Georgia education professor Eric Houck.

"I think the Wake School System is in somewhat limbo right now,” Houck said.

Houck, a former employee of the Wake Education Partnership, co-authored the study,

Houck said that despite the firestorm of scrutiny over overturning the diversity policy, it was not being properly implemented to begin with.

"If you look at the particulars of the policy, that no schools should be over 40 percent free or reduced-price lunches, over time you see more and more schools out of compliance with that," Houck said.

The school system has used busing, student reassignment and magnet schools to achieve socio-economic diversity. It bases diversity calculations on the number of students in a school who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which are federally subsidized and depend on family income.

But Wake parents upset over the diversity policy went to the polls last November to elect a new majority to the school board. That majority is working to end assigning and busing students for diversity in favor of a community-based assignment model.

Houck said growth contributed to the school board not being able to comply with its own policy. Only 10 schools were out of compliance with the diversity policy in 1999, but that number had increased to 36 schools by 2007.

"What we think happened in Wake is that more and more free or reduced-price lunch students came into the system and made it impossible to meet the 40 percent threshold, but the spirit of the law was held onto over time," Houck said.

The district kept up a reputation for having diversity policy in place, but it lacked the commitment to make the changes needed over time to enforce the policy, Houck said. The policy did, however, work in spirit.

"Wake has maintained high levels of student achievement, and they have maintained the spirit of the policy by preventing the resegreation of their schools along race and class lines," Houck said.

The question being debated now is whether Wake’s neighborhood-based student assignment will racially segregate schools.

"The schools will begin to reflect neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are segregated by race and by class. Therefore, schools will become segregated by race and by class," Houck said.

Houck, who wrote the study with fellow UGA professor Sheneka Williams, is presenting its findings to the American Educational Research Association annual meeting this week in Denver.