Desegregation In Wake County

Trymaine Lee has a fascinating story on the role Americans for Prosperity played in dismantling a school desegregation program in North Carolina:

Since 2000, Wake County has used a system of integration based on income. Under this program, no more than 40 percent of any school’s students could receive subsidized lunches, a proxy for determining the level of poverty. The school district is the 18th largest in the country, and includes Raleigh, its surrounding suburbs and rural areas. It became one of the first school systems in the nation to adopt such a plan.

But Wake County’s plan became a political flash point when five conservative candidates, bankrolled by Americans for Prosperity, a political activist group funded in part by the Kochs, were elected to the school board on a “neighborhood schools” platform that would dismantle the existing integration policy.

The new board touted their plan as one that would end busing and eliminate class, and subsequently race, as a factor for student school assignments. The "neighborhood schools" plan would assign students to schools closer to where they lived, meaning students from mostly poor and black communities would likely attend schools whose demographics were much the same. White children from well-heeled families would be more likely to attend schools filled with upper-middle class white children and enjoy more resources.

Conservatives have gained traction by arguing that desegregation is morally equivalent to discrimination based on race, but the Cook County program was based on class, so those moral objections don't really apply. Moreover, the benefits of school desegregation are very real--as Dana Goldstein has written:

At the macro level, four decades of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress--the "nation's report card"--show that the achievement gap between white and minority students shrunk fastest during the 1970s and 1980s, the era of Court-mandated school desegregation. Between 2004 and 2009, on the other hand--our NLCB, "standards and accountability" era--the achievement gap between white children and black and Latino children did not shrink at all.

As Goldstein explains, what happens when desegregation programs end is that good teachers generally abandon the worst performing schools, exacerbating the problem. At least for me, it's difficult to understand the opposition to a class-based desegregation program that evidence suggests substantially benefits kids from underprivileged backgrounds. It starts to feel like simply not wanting "your kids" going to school with "those kids," which is unfortunate. Going to DC public schools, and making friends with kids who came from different neighborhoods and didn't have two highly educated parents to steer them on the right path all the time was one of the most rewarding, formative experiences I've ever had. For one thing, it taught me early on that successful  outcomes in life are rarely the mere result of herculean individual effort, but are often governed by external factors the successful tend to take for granted or can't even see. 

So it's not like public schools only benefit kids who come from struggling families--although I suppose it's not the sort of life lesson conducive to developing a right-wing worldview. 

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