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Education, Closer To Home

In most towns and cities across the country, there is nothing controversial about the sight of a yellow school bus. But in Wake County, N.C., those buses are symbols of a fierce debate.

The Wake County School District, which includes the city of Raleigh, is one of the last in the nation to bus students to schools outside their immediate neighborhoods in order to promote diversity. As other districts returned to the principle of neighborhood schools after court-ordered desegregation busing in the 1970s and ‘80s , Wake County retained its diversity-conscious school assignment plan, simply shifting its focus from racial to economic diversity.

In 2000 the district stipulated that no more than 40 percent of any school’s student body should qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs. Since the district is large, encompassing the entire county, it was able to meet this goal by mixing students from affluent areas with students from poor neighborhoods, where nearly all school-age children qualify for assistance. The district sought to achieve this mixture both by establishing magnet schools in low-income areas, to encourage students from affluent areas to travel voluntarily, and by manipulating student assignments for non-magnet schools. By the 2005-06 school year, the district had achieved its goal in 85 of its 116 elementary and middle schools. Because income level and race are frequently correlated, the program had the side effect of making the schools more racially diverse as well.

Last March, however, the Wake County school board voted 5-4 to assign students to schools based solely on their home addresses.

The issue has provoked national controversy. Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, told The Washington Post, “So far, all the chatter we heard from tea partyers has not manifested in actually putting in place retrograde policies. But this is one place where they have literally attempted to turn back the clock.” The NAACP filed a civil rights complaint, alleging that eliminating the busing program would violate laws that prohibit the use of federal funds for discriminatory purposes. The complaints have even put the district’s accreditation in jeopardy. Opponents of the change painted the members of the school board as reactionaries, and even racists, and much has been made of the fact that the vote occurred shortly after Republicans gained a majority on the board.

Parents who support the new school assignment plan say their primary motive is not to reduce diversity, but to resolve logistical problems. As the district has undergone rapid growth, its demographics have shifted equally rapidly, requiring officials to make frequent adjustments in school assignments to keep schools economically balanced. “There was just this constant shuffling every year,” said Kathleen Brennan, the founder of a parent group that opposed the old system. Brennan and other parents also have argued that economic balancing allowed officials to ignore problems unique to minority students or to those from lower-income homes, since the smaller number of affected students at any given school made the problems less noticeable. Her group specifically focused on qualified minority students’ under-enrollment in advanced math classes.

When I was in high school, I rode a bus to a school 40 minutes from my home, taking a route past several other, closer schools. My bus was a New York City bus, not a yellow school bus. I rode it, not for the purposes of racial or economic diversity, but so I could attend a better school. The Bronx High School of Science required students to do well on a competitive admissions test to get in. As a result, the student body was generally intelligent and diligent, and the caliber of the education I received there was high.

Another result of the admissions test was that relatively few students from the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which were overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic at that time, attended Bronx Science. My classmates were primarily white or Asian.

Was my education or my development hindered by that 40-minute ride twice each school day? And if my own education didn’t suffer, was the same true for those of my classmates who spent nearly four hours a day on buses and trains? If the commute didn’t hurt us, did the lack of diversity interfere with our ability to develop a broad worldview? Did students at the neighborhood schools we would have attended suffer from classes missing some of the brightest students in their neighborhoods? Did the neighborhoods themselves lose some essential unity as a result of local children attending different schools?

Most American adults have pretty strong opinions on these questions, so I am content to let you draw your own conclusions. But I will point out that the school board in Wake County is merely doing what most other school districts around the country already do. Those other districts, including my home district in Broward County, Fla., are not getting hauled into court by the NAACP.

Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, operates the sixth largest school system in the country. Students can opt to attend several magnet schools with specialized curricula, or they can choose to attend non-magnet schools outside their home areas, if space is available, but they are never required to go to any school other than the one located nearest them. Despite this, Broward County still officially attained “unitary status” in 1996, when it was deemed no longer in need of court-monitored efforts to combat segregation.

When the cameras go away and the shouting dies down, Wake County is not going to look like the Deep South circa 1950. It's going to look like what it is: another 21st-century school district that is trying to come up with the most effective way to educate its kids.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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