News: CJ Exclusives

Wake’s Busing for Diversity Not Making the Grade

Scores have declined for economically disadvantaged students

In early 2000, the Wake County Board of Education adopted a school assignment policy based on family income, which the board says is necessary to improve the educational outcomes of economically disadvantaged students and balance schools across the district.

But North Carolina end-of-grade test data show student achievement for economically disadvantaged students in Wake County has declined since income-based assignments were instituted.

Several Wake County parent groups have begun coordinating their efforts to end Wake County’s income-based assignment policy that they say is traumatic for both children and their families. An income-based integration plan determines school assignment by whether a student is enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program (F&R).

The groups include WakeCARES, which sued the Wake County Public School System in 2007 over its forced year-round school conversion policy, and two newly formed groups, the Wake Schools Community Alliance and Children’s PAC, founded by Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

At a school board hearing Feb. 6 in Holly Springs, parents voiced their opposition to the most-recent three-year school reassignment proposal presented by the Wake County BOE, which would reassign 24,654 students over the next three years.

But Kathleen Brennan, cofounder of WakeCARES, and other parents dispute that number. In a written statement, Brennan said both the Wake County school board and Wake Education Partnership are trying to make the 24,654 appear substantially less by referring to the number of people who could be grandfathered in but must provide their own transportation.

For the five-year span from 2004 and ending in 2009, “WCPSS will have reassigned 38,940 children,” Brennan said, which is 28.3 percent of 2008 enrollment, and that figure does not include about 15,000 students scheduled for reassignment over the next two years or those forced into a year-round calendar, opt outs, and so forth.

Instead of shuffling children from neighborhood schools and busing them to schools as far away as 25 miles, parents asked the board at the Feb. 6 meeting to adopt assignment policies that favor neighborhood schools, meaning children attend schools closest to their homes, and that give parents an open enrollment choice if they are dissatisfied with the educational quality their child is receiving.

Supporting this and other changes is Ron Margiotta, a member of the Wake County Board of Education, who along with Keith Weatherly, mayor of Apex, Kent Misegades, chairman of the board of trustees of Thales Academy, and two other Wake County residents, wrote and presented an open letter to the school board at the Feb. 6 meeting.

Policies and results

After comparing data from the state’s school report cards for the school year 2007-08 to data from the school year 2001-02, the letter’s authors concluded that economically disadvantaged and Limited English Proficiency students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have progressed rapidly relative to their Wake County public school counterparts. CMS abolished income-based assignments in 2002 after a 2001 court ruling that ended busing.

Parents showed the school board that EOG scores for economically disadvantaged students in Wake County Public Schools fell from 2.1 percent above the state average in 2001-02 to 2 percent below the state average in 2007-08.

Scores for economically disadvantaged students in CMS improved from 7.9 percent below the state average in 2001-02 to 2.2 percent below for 2007-08. In other words, the 10 percent difference that existed in favor of Wake County relative to CMS has been reduced to 0.2 percent for 2007-08.

Also, EOG scores for Limited English Proficiency students in CMS now exceed the state average by 1.7 percent, instead of 2 percent below as in 2001-02, whereas EOG scores for Wake County’s Limited English Proficiency students declined from 6.8 percent in 2001-02 to 2.9 percent in 2007-08.

As of February 2009, CMS has a significantly higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students — 50 percent — than does Wake County — 30 percent — yet the data show that Charlotte-Mecklenburg students are faring better than those in Wake County.

A better measure of academic achievement would be to analyze cohorts or representative groups, but the school board and the Department of Public Instruction have declined to release these performance data to the parent groups.

Right to choose

Parents who oppose Wake’s school assignment policies are not trying to undermine diversity, as some have charged, but rather are trying to make sure that parents, regardless of income level, have a voice in the educational system and can choose the best educational opportunities for their children.

Cope and Brennan said that several minority advocacy groups, including Raleigh Wake Citizens Association, support their efforts to change Wake’s diversity policies. Several attempts to reach Daniel Coleman, president of the Raleigh Wake group, were unsuccessful.

In a recent blog post on BlueNC, Greg Flynn wrote that the real purpose of these opposition groups is to ensure higher property values in the neighborhoods where they live and to “obliterate public education and replace it with a free market system funded by taxpayers with universal vouchers.”

While praising the NAACP’s recent march in Raleigh that pushed for, among other things, better schools, the “Employee Free Choice Act,” and collective bargaining rights for public employees, Flynn criticized the Children’s PAC and other parent groups wishing to elect new school board candidates, saying they want to end diversity and “weaken the Wake County Public School system to [the] point where it can be easily killed off by conservatives like Ron Margiotta, Kent Misegades, Robert Luddy, Nelson Dollar and Paul Stam.”

“After attending multiple work sessions and school board meetings, I’m convinced their [Wake school board] goal is to promote mediocrity. The board of education is using busing to mask the low performance of individual schools,” said Cope in a recent interview.

By sending children far away from their local schools, the school board is discouraging parents from being involved in schools, said both Cope and Brennan, and it boosts a school’s overall achievement data but not for subgroups like economically disadvantaged or Limited English Proficiency students.

Referring to the current school board, “the white folks in charge of the school system who have no children are speaking for educationally disadvantaged students without any meaningful input from their parents,” said Cope.

“The school board assumes that these parents won’t get involved, but the board doesn’t give them the opportunity. They’ve never even talked to the F&R parents to see what they think of these policies,” Brennan said. “The federal government has grants to help F&R kids, and Guilford County schools got one, but Wake didn’t even apply.”

“Board members have heard little from minority parents, especially those from Southeast Raleigh,” wrote T. Keung Hui, a reporter for the News and Observer of Raleigh. “Most of the feedback has come from white, suburban parents who are upset about their children changing schools.”

Cope’s comments that the school board was using “his children for a social experiment that has gone wrong and needs to be replaced” reflects the sentiment of many parents. Businesses and people relocate to Wake County because of the quality of neighborhood schools, but students are subject to reassignment after just one year, said Cope, and that’s “a disservice to students, parents, and businesses.”

A recent $215,000 audit of the Wake County Public School System by Phi Delta Kappa criticized the board for failing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of its reassignment plan or diversity policy, Brennan said.

Among their recommendations, these parent opposition groups are calling for Wake County to abolish its income-based reassignment policy and use the savings to focus on the poorest-performing schools and children with special needs and to pay teachers based on their individual performance, not their seniority, credentials, or school where they work.

Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.