RALEIGH – To understand the dramatic events now underway in the Wake County public schools, North Carolina’s biggest school district, you have to go back in time more than four decades – and transfer your attention to equally dramatic events in what was then North Carolina’s biggest school district.

The case that became Swann vs. the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education had a complicated history but, by 1971, a clear conclusion – the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision affirming a federal judge’s order that Charlotte-Mecklenburg integrate its previously segregated schools through race-conscious busing policies. Other school systems in North Carolina and beyond implemented similar policies, though there were usually not under a court order to so do. Wake County was one of those latter districts.

Forced busing was never popular. Its efficacy is more debatable. During the 1970s and 1980s, test scores and graduation rates improved in the newly integrated systems, though it’s not obvious that the districts where forced busing was more extensive, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, showed more progress than districts where it was less extensive and magnets played a greater role in integration, such as Wake County.

By the 1990s, it was clear that the 1970s-era remedies, though well intended and perhaps necessary at the time, were unsustainable. The federal courts had become more suspicious of governments using race as a criterion for assigning or admitting students, awarding contracts, or hiring employees. While student performance had improved overall, the gap between whites and blacks hadn’t improved much after the initial integration period, weakening the case for continuing an unpopular and costly system of forced busing.

Also, increasing diversity in the suburbs rendered old assumptions and assignment patterns obsolete. And an influx of immigrants to North Carolina, both from other states and from other countries, brought a new constituency of parents and taxpayers who had different ideas, different priorities, and little patience for remedies crafted decades before in response to policies they had neither experienced or condoned.

By the mid-1990s, several parents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg decided to file a lawsuit challenging the exclusion of their white children from CMS magnet schools on the basis of their race. Several black parents intervened in an attempt to protect and even strengthen the busing program ordered in Swann. At about the same time, left-wing education activists changed their legal own strategy, opting for school-funding litigation in an attempt to force the state to spend more tax dollars helping minority and low-income students gain access to better education. This litigation eventually took the form of the now-famous Leandro case.

To make a long story short, in 1999 a federal court struck down race-conscious student assignment in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Shortly thereafter, the local school board adopted a new assignment plan that combined neighborhood schools with parental choice within several large assignment zones. Separately a state court refused to use the Leandro case as a pretext for ordering CMS to reinstate forced busing.

Other public school systems adopted neighborhood assignment and parental-choice policies, too. But Wake County pointedly chose a different response. It preserved its race-based busing and magnet programs by substituting economic disadvantage as a proxy for race.

This all happened about a decade ago. Since then, the number of CMS schools with very low or very high concentrations of poor students has grown. But at the same time, student performance in CMS has improved. In Wake County, by contrast, student performance has flattened out and in some cases deteriorated. As I have noted many times, CMS now outperforms Wake in most measures of student performance for disadvantaged students.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that Wake has been actively damaging the academic achievement of its minority and disadvantaged students by maintaining forced busing. What it does mean is that forced busing is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for closing performance gaps and boosting the overall performance of a school system.

Just about everything advocates of Wake’s diversity policies have been saying in their defense is either woefully misinformed, maliciously dishonest, or a desperate attempt to placate the state NAACP so its leaders won’t sue (an empty threat, in my opinion, given that the prospect of victory in court is approximately zero). Here are the basic facts of the matter:

• Wake’s busing policies have been doomed for years. They are massively unpopular with residents of all parties and races. They are contrary to prevailing legal opinion and common sense. And they are obnoxious in their use of children as means rather than as ends.

• Wake’s busing policies do not help disadvantaged students succeed. Wake’s average test scores are higher than Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s only because Wake’s students are, on average, more affluent. Poor and minority students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg outperform their counterparts in Wake County. Laudatory claims about Wake’s national reputation for having a successful busing policy are evidence only of the gullibility of the people who made and believed those claims. They have absolutely no connection to reality, and never did.

• Wake voters selected a new school board majority in November with a clear agenda: eliminate forced busing and forced assignment to year-round schools. The new school board majority is following through on its campaign promises. Other political and civic leaders in Wake County need to settle down, grow up, do their homework, and get back to business.

I’d close by speculating that these critics’ real purpose in continuing to defend the indefensible must be to sacrifice the interests of Wake County students on the altar of their own political agenda, but that would be stooping to their level. Instead, I’ll assume that they do genuinely care about educational progress and are just misguided.

But I’ve always been a charitable guy.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation