RALEIGH – “There is no longer any such thing as fiction and nonfiction,” E.L. Doctorow once wrote. “There’s only narrative.”
Doctorow didn’t intend his observation to extend to political debate. Still, it fits. Political rhetoric is often fashioned not as a response to empirical realities, or even as an appeal to logical reasoning, but as a means of constructing a compelling narrative. And in the South, there is no more compelling a narrative than civil rights.
In recent months, the Left has sought to recast the complex policy details of Wake County’s student-assignment policies into a simplistic morality tale about racial segregation. The effort has snookered a few activists and reporters, mostly those from far away who lack the relevant information to spot the mistakes and misrepresentations.
The effort has not, however, changed anything on the ground. The conservative majority on the board of North Carolina’s biggest school district, elected in 2009 with a clear mandate to end the system’s plan of forced busing, is proceeding with its reforms. It is highly unlikely that school-board elections in 2011 will switch control of the board back to the social engineers, meaning that the earliest opportunity to reverse course through direct election will be in 2013 – after a new choice-based enrollment policy has been implemented.
In the meantime, there are a few other tools the obstructionists might use to try to defend Wake’s current, unpopular busing program. They might file a lawsuit, which would be doomed but could gum up the works for a bit. Or they might try to convince Wake’s county commission or North Carolina’s legislature to overrule the school board’s majority in some fashion, perhaps by using the power of the purse.
Most importantly, the obstructionists will seek to use the Wake busing case as a means of mobilizing liberal donors and voters for the 2010 election cycle. Such a use doesn’t require that their various allegations bear any relationship to reality. It merely requires that they repeat and defend their narrative.
Here’s an assessment of the Left’s narrative, expressed in the form of frequently asked questions:
• Is Wake County a leader in forced busing?
Yes, unfortunately. Only a handful of other school districts still cling to large-scale busing programs. Interestingly, Wake was not traditionally considered a model for busing. Within North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg had a much more extensive busing program until about a decade ago, when its program was thrown out by the federal courts. In response, CMS and most other districts abandoned busing. Wake defended its smaller, but still unpopular, busing program by substituting socioeconomic status for race, deeming the former more defensible in court.
• Is Wake County a leader in helping poor and minority student succeed?
No, unfortunately. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and most other urban systems in North Carolina have higher test scores than Wake does among disadvantaged students. The 2010 test scores, scheduled for public release later this week, confirm the trend. Wake students posted a gain this year, but so did most other North Carolina students. Wake actually underperformed Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford, and other systems – again.
In an irony utterly lost on them, many of the protesters at a recent Raleigh rally against the Wake school board actually reside in other North Carolina counties that don’t use forced busing and that outperform Wake County among disadvantaged students. They quite literally had no idea what they were talking about – or, more to the point, screaming about.
• Is the Wake County Board of Education about to resegregate its schools?
No. Segregated public education was a noxious and destructive policy of identifying and separating students by race, assigning them to schools based on their color of their skin. It should have been declared unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment long before the Supreme Court acted in the 1954 Brown decision. It was never consistent with the principles of a free society and should never be reimposed.
In order to justify their allegations, busing proponents have resorted to redefining “segregation” so that it refers simply to differences among schools in student demographics, regardless of what those differences reflect – variations in birth rates, for example, or suburbanization. Fundamentally, it is the Left that wishes to assign students to schools according to skin color or family income. The rest of us, the vast majority of citizens of all backgrounds, want to focus attention on the needs of individual students and the preferences of individual parents.
• Is the idea of choice-based assignment for Wake students a new one?
No. The candidates who won the majority of the Wake school board last fall had long advocated giving parents more control over where their children attend school. The choice plan now being developed by the board is similar to plans already implemented in Forsyth, Mecklenburg, and other school districts.
The elements of such a plan are easy to understand and widely popular: 1) divide a large district such as Wake into a number of student-assignment zones, drawn according to traditional municipal and community lines; 2) allow parents to rate their top choices of schools within their zones, aiming to give the vast majority either their first or second choice; 3) allow parents to apply for schools outside their assignment zones as long as there is space and they provide transportation, while giving low-income families free transportation to the school of their choice; 4) resolve ties on the basis of siblings and proximity; and 5) maximize parental choice and satisfaction by allowing local schools to adopt differing themes, curricula, and instructional styles, to the extent allowed by state law.
For those parents who remain dissatisfied with the choices available to them within the county-run schools, additional options ought to be made available – but that will require state action by the General Assembly.
Those who seek to defend forced busing – or at least to pretend to, for the purposes of voter mobilization – are free to construct whatever narrative they like. They are not free to construct their own facts.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.