Raleigh's Innovative Economic Diversity Plan
by Richard Kahlenberg
On Sunday, The New York Times outlined the growing threat to Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina’s innovative and successful plan to integrate schools by economic status. The program, which was lauded in the Times five years ago for its ability to increase minority achievement, while maintaining high achievement for whites, seeks to ensure that no school has more than 40% of students eligible for subsidized lunches. This past October, however, the plan came under attack in the ostensibly nonpartisan school board election, where opponents of the diversity plan were heavily funded by the Republican Party.
Wake County’s socioeconomic school integration plan, adopted in 2000, is based on 40 years of research suggesting that all students do better in economically mixed schools than in high poverty schools. In middle-class schools, classmates provide positive peer influences, parents are actively involved in school affairs, and excellent educators teach to high expectations. Because Wake County includes the city of Raleigh and the surrounding suburbs, it has a demographic makeup which enables the district to seek to make all schools majority middle-class.
But over time, problems arose. A victim of its own success, the county school system has seen tremendous growth, which required the opening of new schools and routine reassignment of students to fill those schools. In order to save money, the district turned to “year round” schools which students attend with short breaks throughout the year rather than a traditional summer break, to enable more students to use facilities. Some students were mandatorily assigned to these nontraditional schools, which sparked parental anger.
The school board also allowed some schools to slip out of compliance from the 40% cap on low income students. Unsurprisingly, students in these higher poverty schools have performed poorly, driving down district test score averages. In the five schools that were significantly out of compliance – having more than 60% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch-- all groups of students, low income, middle class, black, white, and Hispanic, performed below their comparable peers in the district.
In the October elections, fewer than 5% of county voters were able to tip the scales against the policy. Only four of nine school district seats were up for election, so a majority of the jurisdiction’s voters were ineligible to participate. In the four districts voting, just 11.6 percent of eligible voters participated. Of those voting (roughly 5.2 percent of all Wake County voters), a majority voted for candidates critical of the socioeconomic integration policy.
The political debate in Wake County isn’t over yet. Supporters of the diversity policy – teachers, civil rights advocates, business leaders, and white parents who like magnet schools -- are fighting back. An important forum is slated for mid-March to discuss the diversity policy. One of the newly elected school board members, who has been critical of the diversity policy, is trying to search for a middle ground on the divided board.
As I argued in a piece in the Raleigh News and Observer, a “third way” in Wake County could involve maintaining the important economic diversity goals, but achieving them by using greater public school choice, and less mandatory assignment. Such programs, in which all schools take on magnet themes, have been highly successful in a number of districts throughout the country, which have married public school choice and diversity.
If Wake County’s economic diversity plan is ultimately overturned, it will be very bad news for children in Wake County, and it could also give an excuse to timid school board members nationally to avoid doing what is right for children.
But the good news is that nationally, momentum is growing for socioeconomic school integration. When Wake County adopted its plan in 2000, it was one of a couple of districts paying attention to poverty concentrations. By 2007, the number had grown to 40. Today, there are roughly 70 school districts using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment. Even a community with very high concentrations of poverty, the Chicago Public Schools, has begun to integrate subset of magnet and selective enrollment schools by socioeconomic status.
Wake County has been a national leader in promoting economically diverse schools. Maintaining that program will require considerable political courage. But trying instead to make separate schools for rich and poor equal will prove even more difficult.