Wake me up before you go, go

On Tuesday, North Carolina’s Wake County school board narrowly (5-4) decided to replace its four-decade-old policy of integrating schools via busing. The latest iteration of that policy, now one decade old, aimed to ensure a middle-class majority at each school in the system; the district was able to do this because it was big and relatively affluent. In the last decade, however, Wake’s population has increased 38 percent, mostly due to an influx of poor Hispanic families. The changing demographics made it harder and harder for the system to achieve its school diversity goals. Some students now travel as many as twenty miles to school, meaning bus rides of an hour or more, and are reassigned yearly to keep the balance. The long commutes and frequent upheavals propelled four new anti-busing members onto the school board last fall; they joined with an incumbent to create the five-person anti-busing majority. Over the next three years, the new plan will create neighborhood zones, some twenty in all, and depend on magnet schools to maintain voluntary socioeconomic integration. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, voiced the concerns of many when he said the plan will create “private schools with public dollars.” It seems likely that many Wake County schools will become racially and socioeconomically isolated (as the Charlotte schools did when that system ended its busing program). While perhaps unfortunate, this also seems to be a lesson in the politics and feasibility of integration: Though a well-run program can thread the political needle for a time and within reason (at least sixty other districts nationwide have some version of a “controlled choice” integration plan), even the most progressive-minded parents have their breaking point.

District May End N.C. Economic Diversity Program,” by Robbie Brown, New York Times, February 27, 2010

Once a Leader in School Diversity, NC Retrenches,” by Mike Baker, The Associated Press, March 2, 2010

Rally Backs Busing Students for Diversity,” by Lynn Bonner, Sun News, February 28, 2010