-by Trymaine Lee
August 15, 2011- The stakes in the battle over the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina couldn’t be higher.
On one side are the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, and the Tea Party and libertarian groups they fund. On the other, parents, students and community leaders who are bent on stopping measures passed by the conservative-led school board that they argue would re-segregate the county’s public schools, which had been a national model for diversity and integration.
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.
The elections led to heated protests. Under pressure from community groups and activists, the school board halted the plan for further review. It has since developed a number of alternative plans, though most of those would still have some re-segregating effect.
The NAACP filed a complaint with the Department of Justice in response, and there have been legal challenges based on the plan's constitutionality.
Our issue is how are the children, both black and white, going to be cared for,” said the Rev. WIlliam Barber, who heads the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. “When we argue for diversity, it is not simply, 'People need to be in close proximity to each other.' Whenever you have racially identifiable, high-poverty schools, you also have corresponding with that under-resources and high teacher turnover.”
The complaint filed by the NAACP contends that "African-American, Hispanic and mixed-race students and their families, have been injured by the intentionally racially discriminatory actions of a five-member majority of the Wake County Board of Education," and that upon winning a majority, the new board "immediately took drastic steps to reassign non-White students to schools with a higher percentage of non-White students than their prior school, and to reassign White students to schools with a higher percentage of white students than their prior school.”
Following the NAACP's complaint, the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation into the "neighborhood schools" plan, and in January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chided the Wake County school board in a letter to The Washington Post.