Wake school diversity wars: Take 1

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Almost since the advent of the Raleigh-Wake schools merger in the mid-70s, the combined Wake County school system has followed a policy of managing student populations so as to achieve, first, racial balance, and later, "socio-economic" balance in all of its schools. That is, there should be no "high-poverty schools" in Wake ... and no "low-performing schools" either. The goal is that every school should have fewer than 40 percent of its students eligible for the federal program of "free or reduced lunch" -- meaning their family income is below $39,000 a year for a family of four -- and fewer than 25 percent of students performing below grade-level.

It's a goal, it should be said straight off, that the Wake school board has struggled for years to meet, and that in recent years has slipped farther away as the county's low-income population expanded. Over the last decade, the number of schools out of compliance with the 40 percent "F&R" goal has grown from seven to 51 (out of the current 156 schools). Five schools are currently between 60 and 70 percent F&R-eligible. During that time, the overall percentage of Wake's students who are F&R-eligible has increased from about 20 percent to 28.4 -- with much of that growth in a growing Hispanic population concentrated in the southern and eastern portions of the county.

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Clearly, sticking close to the goal has suffered from the fact that Wake's population growth in recent decades has been anything but balanced. The explosion of Cary's, Apex's and, of late, Holly Springs's populations -- fueled by the success of RTP and the absence of any affordable-housing requirements -- has been largely of the upper-income kind. Not all upper-income, that is, but weighted that way. Meanwhile, historically black Southeast Raleigh remains predominately lower-income, and the growth in eastern Wake -- while ethnically diverse -- has also tilted to the lower-income side.

In short, the sprawl has been economically segregated:  upscale folks to the west and northwest (North Raleigh), lower-income folks to the east, southeast and northeast.

Add to this the fact that western Wake grew faster (and earlier) than eastern Wake, its growth thus outpacing its supply of schools, and the problem becomes clear: To maintain balanced populations in all the schools, while keeping all the schools full (and filling up the new schools as they come on line), it was necessary to transport (bus) kids in a generally west-to-east direction.

Now, there are two ways to do this:

* 1 -- Limited busing in the center of the county, while requiring the long-distance busing of kids from, say, Holly Springs, on over to Zebulon, Wendell, Knightdale and Wake Forest. Parents of the Holly Springs kids would, naturally, be really steamed if you did it that way.

*2 -- Bus more kids for short distances from west to east, e.g., some of Apex goes to Cary, some of Cary to West Raleigh, some of West Raleigh to East Raleigh, some of East Raleigh to Wake Forest, and so on. This, in fact, is the way it's done.

Most of this busing would occur whether there was a diversity policy or not. Just filling new schools as they open, while shifting kids from existing schools as they become overcrowded, would require regular "reassignments." And, to repeat, because western Wake grew so fast -- and because the county commissioners are always behind the growth curve when it comes to building new schools, and during the '90s when conservative Republicans were in control, they fell much farther behind than usual -- the reassignment pattern, sans diversity, would remain west-to-east.

But it's Wake's diversity policies that draw fire, and especially from parents in western Wake, for a number of reasons.

First, diversity is optional; and while growth is optional too, an entire industry of developers, homebuilders, construction workers and publications selling real-estate ads, is devoted to growth, not to mention that most people would rather live in an area that's growing than one that's dying. And at the risk of belaboring the obvious, most of western Wake didn't exist before the post-1987 Wake housing boom.

Second, diversity is on the visible margin of Wake's busing. Think of it as the tip of the busing iceberg, that small part of the transportation iceberg that stands out while the great bulk of it -- the busing done because most kids don't live all that close to any school -- is invisible, or at any rate unremarkable.

Third, the memory of "neighborhood schools" is implanted in many of our minds, especially those of us who grew up (as many of the western Wake transplants did) in the mid-20th century in small towns up North or in the Midwest. We did, indeed, walk to school or ride our bikes -- I did, in the little New Jersey town where I grew up -- and it's tempting to imagine that if Wake abandoned its diversity policy and instead embraced a "neighborhood schools" concept, the kids here could do the same.

But it ain't true. The NJ town where I grew up had connected streets, no highways or "major arterials,"and a perpetually overcrowded (one) K-8 school until our steady, if slow growth finally forced us to bite the bullet and build a second K-8 school. At that point, both schools were just three-fourths full. The point is, it was an easy, safe town for kids to move around in; and because it was almost-all upscale, the voters were willing to pay a lot for education, which is why they ponied up for that second school knowing it wouldn't be full.

Contrast this with Wake County, which has 156 schools but needs about 180 (almost 20 percent of the classroom space is in trailers), and which is constructed on a platform of cul-de-sac streets which feed into a limited number of major roads where a kid on a bike dare not go.

Unless every subdivision is willing to build its own tiny schools, in other words, a shift to "neighborhood" schools will in no way change the basic experience of the average Jane or Johnny, who will need to get on a bus to get from his house to his school on the other side of Capital Boulevard or Wake Forest Road or Six Forks Road, or -- well, you get the point.

Once on the bus, does it really matter all that much whether Jane travels one mile to school or three? According to the school system, 90 percent of elementary students are assigned to schools within three miles of home, and 99 percent to schools within 10 miles; for high school students, 90 percent are assigned to schools within five miles, and 96 percent within 10 miles.

(On the other hand, 10 miles is a 45-minute bus ride in many cases, which is quite a while for a youngster ... and time enough for a teenager to go nuts.)

Facts and figures aside, the idea of neighborhood schools is a powerful one. And if nothing can be done about the major impediment to them -- i.e., the road pattern in Wake County -- still they could be made a reality for a few more kids ... my kid, maybe ... if the minor, but nonetheless irritating policy of busing for diversity reasons was removed.

Or so the thinking goes -- and in fact, most of diversity's opponents misstake the diversity policy for a major impediment to their goal of neighborhood schools, not a minor one.

So now we prepare for another round of school board elections in October, with four seats at stake, all of them held by pro-diversity incumbents. (On the nine-member board, just one current member, Ron Margiotta of Apex, is anti-diversity. But a sweep of the four seats this fall by Margiotta's conservative allies could turn the board's majority around.)

Three of the four incumbents have already announced that they won't seek re-election. The fourth, Horace Tart, is undecided, but a fellow board member says he's leaning toward running. Either way, an anti-diversity group with roots in Apex is recruiting candidates, as is the pro-diversity side. There are other issues in the schools, of course, but they always seem to be swept aside by the diversity issue come election time -- and up to now, the pro-diversity side has always prevailed.

Will it again this year? The anti-diversity forces have a new argument they're testing out, which is that the diversity policy, though aimed in part at helping low-income kids, doesn't in fact help them ... or at least there's no statistical evidence to show that it does.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington and perhaps the nation's leading researcher on such issues, begs to differ. He was in Raleigh Wednesday and at a national conference Thursday in Chapel Hill. His take on the issue, and Wake County's diversity policy, will be the subject of my next blog.

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