It may be a shameless plug, but I think many readers might be interested in my new book,
The End of Consensus. In a truly collaborative effort, I, a political scientist from the right of center, teamed up with Toby Parcel, a sociologist colleague at N.C. State with more leftward views, to write about Wake County public schools and their politics over the past decade.

We particularly were intrigued by the overthrow of the liberal status quo in 2009.

Many of you will remember that particular board election pivoting on the issue of the county’s general assignment policy. Ever since Raleigh and the surrounding Wake systems were unified in 1976, children had been assigned to schools to diversify student bodies.

Initially, the metric used was racial, but in 2000 it was changed to prevent any one school from having more than 40 percent of its pupils in the free or reduced-price lunch programs and 25 percent who read below grade level.

Opponents of the board’s Democratic majority called to abandon this diversity policy and reassign children to schools based upon geographic proximity, or a neighborhood approach.

The book shows, however, that the election was shaped by a broad dissatisfaction with the county’s public schools stemming from issues in addition to diversity.

The frequent annual reassignments experienced by families inhabiting neighborhoods in the fast-growing areas of western Wake and north Raleigh during the 1990s and 2000s generated tremendous resentment and lingered even when the triggering issue had faded.

The implementation of what was effectively a mandatory year-round schooling policy in places like Apex and Cary was similarly unpopular. The school board’s decisions were seen as arbitrary and cold-hearted. Because of the deep recession, parents were increasingly fretful about their children’s futures.

Interestingly, the Wake school board election in 2009 was unlike those in most other parts of the country that were driven by ideology. Generally when liberals and conservatives fought intense campaigns to influence local education policy, the issues were taxes and funding levels, vouchers, charter and home schools, the content of curricula, and the use of certain instructional materials.

Wake County residents split along other lines as battles over these matters took place at the state level.

Several of our other findings are notable and contrary to popular understanding of the episode. Drawing from a comprehensive survey of Wake County residents, focus groups, and interviews with policymakers and activists on both sides, we found that large numbers of people supported both diversity and neighborhood schools.

Our analysis also demonstrates that whites in suburban western Wake and north Raleigh, so vilified by liberals, were no more supportive of neighborhood schools than those who lived inside the Beltline. In fact, the whites who supported diversity most fervently were those who currently had no children in public schools.

There were clear racial differences in attitudes. African-Americans were more supportive of diversity. However, less-affluent blacks were decidedly more ambivalent about the policy. Some thought they were being used as pawns in a political game and wondered why their children had to be bused great distances.

Despite the rather sanctimonious tone among some lifelong liberal residents of the county, the push for neighborhood schools did not emanate from the legions of newcomers to the area from places like New York and Ohio. Time living in Wake did not explain views about the issue.

It is also important to note that neither the Republican takeover in 2009 nor the Democratic reclamation in 2011 changed policy as much as the vitriolic rhetoric and divergent views of the two sides would suggest. It took their entire term for the Republican majority elected in 2009 to come up with an assignment policy that moved the county somewhat toward a neighborhood model.

The current Democratic majority continues to emphasize proximity in its policies and has begun to shrink the year-round program. The current board may well have learned some lessons from what drove the “revolution” of 2009.

Our book gives conservatives additional encouragement, despite almost total Democratic control after the 2013 election. School system politics need competitive elections and vigorous public debate before decision makers can be held accountable and policies made effective and legitimate.

Schools in many urban areas are at the mercy of Democratic machine politics utterly incapable of solving their problems. Those on the right have shown they can check liberal impulses in Wake County, even if they are unable to take the helm.

Second, most residents do not want their public schools to be part of some kind of broader social policy. They believe education is critically important, but, like any other function of government, their primary expectation is competence. They just want their children to learn.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.