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World & Nation

End of diversity policy leaves a Southern school district divided

This vibrant Southern capital has enjoyed a reputation for first-rate schools that long ago shed a segregated legacy. Schools in poor urban neighborhoods and prosperous suburbs alike have been praised as racially mixed and academically sound.

But the school board’s move to abandon its diversity policy in favor of neighborhood schools has prompted accusations of “re-segregation” and thrown the district into turmoil. Police attend board meetings, where some protesters have been arrested — including the president of the state NAACP, who is now barred from the premises.

Opponents say ending efforts to balance student bodies by race and socioeconomic status will lead Wake County back to the days of Jim Crow. The North Carolina NAACP filed a civil rights complaint, triggering an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. A national accreditation firm is investigating too, warning that the acrimony could threaten quality education.

Even TV comedian Stephen Colbert weighed in, saying the district’s “Three R’s” were “Readin’, Ritin’ and Resegregatin’.”

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Colbert’s mockery and the two investigations were mentioned ruefully by several Wake County residents at an emotional public hearing last month.

“We used to be held up as a national model,” resident Jamie Dunston said. “Now we’re being held up … as objects of ridicule and disgust, and rightfully so.”

Other residents thanked the board for restoring parental choice by allowing children to attend neighborhood schools. Several described long bus rides and lack of parental involvement in schools far from home.

“You’re giving us back local control and quality family time,” one parent said.

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Wake County has become a test of diversity policies nationwide.

“This is really striking,” said professor Gary Orfield, who studies school desegregation as co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “I think it will call into question how useful this model is. It’s a shame — it’s been so successful.”

In a 2009 book, “Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh,” Syracuse University professor Gerald Grant called Wake County schools the nation’s best for racial and economic diversity.

But the board’s 5-to-4 conservative majority, elected in November 2009, says the diversity policy is an unwelcome government intrusion that has led to constant shuffling of students while failing to help low-performing pupils, many of them black.

“We are focused on actually educating kids rather than just distributing kids,” said John Tedesco, part of the majority.

The board’s most vocal opponent is the Rev. William J. Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. The fiery minister has condemned the conservative majority as “the gang of five,” which he says is bent on resegregating schools and flouting Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal, and thus unconstitutional.

“Segregation didn’t work then,” Barber said. “It won’t work now.”

In June, Barber led a protest at a board meeting, where demonstrators sang and chanted while taking over board members’ seats during a recess. Four protesters were arrested, including Barber, who was led away in handcuffs.

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Banned from school property, he was arrested and handcuffed again outside a board meeting in July after leading a march to the site. Inside, 16 other protesters were arrested after seizing control of the podium and chanting, “Forward forever! Backwards never!”

As demonstrators scuffled with police, one officer mistook a board member for a protester and briefly pinned his arm.

The sprawling Wake County Public School System serves 143,000 students in 163 schools spread over 800 square miles. The largest district in the state and the 18th-largest nationwide, it is 49.5% white, 24.8% black, 14.6% Latino and 6% Asian.

After merging city and county schools in 1976, the district used race as one criterion in assigning students to schools. Since 2000, it has used socioeconomic status as a prime factor in determining student assignments, with the goal of creating diversity and eliminating low-income pockets.

Even with busing to enhance diversity, 86% of students attend schools within 5 miles of their homes. In a January 2010 survey of 41,000 district parents, 94.5% said they were satisfied with their children’s school assignments.

But in March, the board voted 5 to 4 to scrap the diversity policy.

Weeks earlier, Supt. Del Burns publicly criticized the board’s plan and announced he would retire. The board put him on administrative leave until his retirement date, calling his comments “totally inappropriate.”

The board has since hired Anthony J. Tata, a retired Army brigadier general who spent 19 months as chief operating officer of Washington, D.C., public schools. Opponents objected, noting his relative lack of educational experience.

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The most outspoken conservative board member has been Tedesco, son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, who moved to Wake County five years ago. He dismisses criticism of the neighborhood plan as “crazy rhetoric” and says the diversity policy has undermined education.

That policy was designed to keep each school under a 40% poverty threshold, as measured by students eligible for free or reduced-price federal lunches.

Ten years ago, only 5% of district schools exceeded the poverty threshold, Tedesco said. Today, according to district figures, the rate is more than 32% — with a few schools reporting rates as high as 70%.

The neighborhood plan will save the district $6 million to $8 million a year in transportation costs, he said. It will be phased in over three years, starting this fall.

Tedesco called the old policy a failed attempt to “manufacture diversity,” adding: “We’re already a beautifully rich and diverse community.”

But Barber said the board’s actions would destroy a system that has produced quality education for students of all races and income levels.

“America, not just Wake County, should stand up and say this is wrong and we’re not going back to the days of segregated schools,” he said.

UCLA’s Orfield said several schools in Charlotte, N.C., reverted to heavy concentrations of poor, black students for the first time in two generations after the district switched to neighborhood schools in 2002.

“They’ll be back in Raleigh too,” Orfield said.

At last month’s public hearing, the community’s polarization was on display.

Barbara Garlock, a Raleigh lawyer, said her children flourished under the diversity system because they shared classes with students from many different backgrounds.

“I’m so grateful they had that opportunity, and I don’t want to see that taken away for other children,” she said.

But Bruce Morris, 40, said the diversity system had failed him and his two siblings, who he estimated spent 6,000 hours riding buses to attend school.

“They put the collective above the individual,” Morris said. “The focus should be on student achievement, not diversity.”

Asked whether he would send his 4-year-old daughter to Wake County schools under the diversity system, Morris replied, “Absolutely not.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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