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January 12, 2011

When the Tea Party Actually Governs

Richard Kahlenberg

The tea party has been very effective in stirring up anger about government programs, but what happens when their adherents actually gain power and begin to govern?  As the Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen notes in a front page story this morning, tea party supporters are now running the schools in Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina.  The result: a long-standing and highly touted school integration program is starting to be rolled back, with likely disastrous results for the children in Wake County.

The Wake County school district, which encompasses the city of Raleigh and the surrounding suburbs, is the largest district in North Carolina and the 18th largest in the United States, bigger than school districts in Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington D.C.  Beginning in the early 1980s, Wake County integrated its schools by race, and in 2000, for educational and legal reasons, the county shifted the basis of integration to socioeconomic status.  School officials set a goal that no more than 40% of students in any school be eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

The program has worked very well, leading Syracuse University researcher Gerald Grant to point to Raleigh schools as a national exemplar.  Low-income students in Wake are surrounded by middle class peers, who on average are more likely to be high achieving and expect to go on to college. And high quality teachers educate students throughout the county because there are few high poverty schools to avoid.  As a result, all groups of students, both low income and middle class, generally outperform comparable groups in other large North Carolina counties.

The old Wake County school board was very smart in seeking to avoid concentrations of poverty, but the implementation of the policy was sometimes clumsy.  Huge growth in the student population resulted in frequent reassignment of students, angering parents.  Tea party conservatives took advantage of the frustration and helped elect a right-wing school board, which recently hired a tea party fan as superintendent.

In the Washington Post article, a key backer of the school board says dismantling the socioeconomic integration plan and segregating underperforming poor kids in certain schools could actually make educational sense.  “If we end up with a concentration of students underperforming academically, it may be easier to reach out to them.”

The assertion – and the school board’s proposed plans to increase concentrations of poverty – flies in the face of 40 years of research.  High poverty schools are 22 times less likely to be high performing than middle-class schools.  On the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) in math, low-income fourth graders attending more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income fourth graders in high poverty schools.  A 2010 Century Foundation study of Montgomery County Maryland public schools finds that low-income elementary students randomly assigned to public housing units in lower poverty neighborhoods and who attend low poverty schools perform far better than those assigned to higher poverty neighborhoods and schools, despite extra investments in the latter for smaller class sizes, extended learning time and better professional development for teachers.

The idea that low-income students will do better if concentrated in certain schools has disturbing echoes of the pre-Brown v. Board of Education argument that Negro children would do better with their own kind.

What the Post article does not reveal is that the Chamber of Commerce in Raleigh (hardly a radical group) has distanced itself from the tea party crowd advocating a return to economically segregated schools.  Many members of the business community know that integrated schools produce better employees than segregated ones, and they do not want to see Raleigh, an engine of technological innovation, painted as a racist backwater.  The Chamber has commissioned a well-regarded education consultant Michael Alves to come up with a plan that uses greater public school choice to promote integrated schools. 

Will the Chamber of Commerce, joined by civil rights groups, faith groups and teachers ultimately prevail against tea party enthusiasts?  The future of the children of Wake County depends on it. 


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James Hershman

Rick Kahlenberg is right about Wake County--it is one of the few examples of a large integrated school system in the nation. While the Post article noted the socio-economic method used to assign students, the main argument still came to rest on Race and diversity. The problem is that the Tea Party people have a counter: that they have backed non-whites for office all over the country. They'll say it's not about race, and much of the white middle class will find that persuasive. Kahlenberg's socio-economic argument,that was not in the Post piece, actually might be a stronger case, especially as he notes when it comes from business, than one based on race.

Jim Hershman

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