Among the hundreds who came to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill last week for a national conference on integrating public schools, Larrie Loehr was admittedly an exception. A retired Navy and Foreign Service officer who's lived in Raleigh for the last 18 years, Loehr is neither a scholar on integration issues nor a school official who grapples with them. Rather, he's an interested citizen trying to make sense of Wake County's school diversity policy.
Loehr, in fact, posed a test case for the many scholars who pointed to Wake's policy as a model for student achievement while also decrying a national trend in the opposite direction, toward a resegregation of schools that's especially damaging to low-income students.
On the one hand, Loehr was listening as a board member of the homeowners association in Falls River, a North Raleigh neighborhood where some parents are upset, he says, that the diversity policy prevents their kids from attending the schools closest to their homes.
Loehr's also helping organize Raleigh's annual Neighborhood Exchange, to be held in September; he wants to present information about diversity, including Wake's magnet schools, and about the "neighborhood schools" alternative. He's not unaware that a month after the exchange, Wake voters will go to the polls to fill four school board seats in an election likely to be dominated by the debate over diversity.
On the other hand, though, Loehr's niece was among the scholars making the case for school integration. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Los Angeles and a former official in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, argued that while Wake's diversity policy is "better than nothing," the Wake school board has lately weakened it by compromising.
Under Wake's policy, no school should have more than 40 percent of its students eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program, which is available to kids from low-income families (for a family of four, the threshold is $39,000 a year). The point is to avoid saddling any school with a "high-poverty" label, thus triggering an exodus by upper-income students.
But several reports noted that out of 156 Wake schools, 51 are out of compliance with the goal. That's a steep increase from eight years ago, when only seven of 120 schools were out of compliance—a rise from 6 percent to 33 percent.
At five elementary schools, as many as 60 to 70 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch this year.
The overall percentage of Wake students who are F&R-eligible has risen during that period, according to the school system's data, from about 20 percent to 28.4 percent. While low-income students can be found throughout the county, they are most heavily concentrated in eastern Wake—and lightly represented in western Wake.
Keeping the schools balanced when the communities surrounding them are unbalanced is one factor in Wake's student assignments, though as Loehr notes, more than 80 percent of student reassignments—and most of the controversy surrounding the diversity policy—are driven by the need to thin overcrowded schools and populate new ones.
So where, at the end of the conference, did Loehr come down on diversity? Some place in the middle, he says.
"Schools play an important part in the development of neighborhoods, and if we exclude neighborhoods completely [from assignment decisions], I think we lose something," he said. "I also think the diversity policy has worked pretty well and is a key for Raleigh and the Research Triangle area to absorb thousands of new students every year."
Loehr added that he wants to learn more about student achievement in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, which critics of Wake's diversity policies have lately held up as an example for Wake to follow—but about which Loehr heard enough negative commentaries to wonder "if Charlotte is returning to old-time segregation."
The UNC conference took place as the pro-diversity and pro-neighborhood advocates in Wake are gearing up for what promises to be a hard-fought campaign for school board seats. Right now, the pro-diversity members hold an 8-1 majority, maintaining the policy of "no bad schools" that has been in effect in Wake County since the merger of the Raleigh and county systems in 1976. If "neighborhood schools" candidates win all four seats on the ballot, however, they would grab a 5-4 edge, joining incumbent Ron Margiotta, a western Wake member from Apex who was re-elected two years ago.
In February, Margiotta co-authored a public letter to the school board, attacking Wake's diversity plan on grounds that it isn't boosting low-income kids. The writers maintained that Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which abolished a similar policy in 2001 and replaced it with a neighborhood schools program, has since closed the gap with Wake on both overall achievement results and low-income students' scores.
Margiotta's fellow authors were four parents, including Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly. Apex residents are the core of a group calling itself the Wake Schools Community Alliance (www.wakesca.org) that is recruiting board candidates to oppose Wake's diversity policy.
"This policy has resulted in sending tens of thousands of young children away from their communities, producing great hardships for their families, and with no factual evidence provided by you of this policy's benefit to our children's academic achievement," the group wrote. [Read the letter (PDF, 73 KB) as well as a response (PDF, 153 KB) from Wake Board of Education member Kevin Hill.]
Several scholars, however, strongly rejected Margiotta and his allies' thesis that there is no factual evidence that Wake's policy is helping any students. They included Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington and one of the nation's leading experts on diversity issues. "I think any serious student of the research would dispute that," Kahlenberg said at a meeting of parents in Raleigh on the eve of the Chapel Hill conference.
Kahlenberg said that research starting with the 1966 Coleman Report, a seminal study led by sociologist James Coleman, consistently shows that the biggest influence on student achievement is the socioeconomic makeup of his or her school—followed by the socioeconomic status of the student's family.
A recent national study, Kahlenberg said, using data from the No Child Left Behind program, found that low-income kids in high-poverty schools—defined as having more than 50 percent of students eligible for the free or reduced lunch program—were performing on average two years behind low-income kids in low-poverty schools.
Students from middle- and upper-income families come to school with high aspirations, motivation and expectations from parents and teachers, he said. When they comprise a majority of a school's population, they help establish a standard to which low-income kids also aspire. But in schools with predominantly low-income student populations, the expectations are less and dropout rates are higher.
The data, he said, also show no negative impacts from diversity on the test results of upper-income kids—and big gains in the quality of their classroom discussions and their appreciation for different cultures and ideas.
Kahlenberg compared Wake's 2008 high school end-of-course test results with those of three other large urban counties—Durham, Guilford and Forsyth—and found that Wake scored highest overall and highest in every subgroup, including low-income, high-income, black, Hispanic and white students.
Comparing Wake's results with Charlotte-Mecklenburg's, though, yielded "more ambiguous results" at first glance, Kahlenburg conceded. Charlotte was close overall and slightly higher in the black and low-income student subgroups, appearing to support the Margiotta claim.
But Kahlenberg noted that Charlotte's high-school graduation rate, according to state data, was 12 percent lower than Wake's in 2008—just 66.6 percent of Charlotte's entering class from 2003 graduated four years later compared to 78.8 percent of Wake's. (See chart on page 5.)
Charlotte's higher dropout rate undermined its test results, since fewer of its low-performing students were left in the testing pool, he argued.
Moreover, Charlotte's spending is almost $500 more per student than Wake's ($8,595 versus $8,117 in the '08 school year), with most of the additional money, according to Kahlenberg, devoted to a futile attempt to boost achievement results in failing inner-city schools that are now, as neighborhood schools, virtually all minority and all low-income.
"Charlotte is trying to spend its way into making 'separate but equal schools' work," Kahlenberg said dismissively in Chapel Hill the next day.
The one thing Charlotte is doing right, he said, is its Bright Beginnings program for disadvantaged pre-kindergarten children. It is expensive but effective, with good teachers and a heavy emphasis on literacy.
Wake's diversity program is "a national model" that the school system should fight to keep, Kahlenberg said. But perhaps it should add a Bright Beginnings component to it. "My contention would be," he said, "that if you put the two together, you'd have the most powerful effects on student outcomes."
As for Larrie Loehr, he found Kahlenberg's presentation compelling as well as others showing that national math scores also track the socioeconomic status of schools.
Loehr still thinks some kids in Wake County are bused too far and that neighborhoods should be stronger in the mix of assignment factors. But before Wake marches down the road to an all-neighborhood schools approach like Charlotte's, he says in complete seriousness, "I'd suggest doing a study of the prison populations of Charlotte and Raleigh."