When North Carolina's Wake County decided to do away with race-based busing to desegregate schools, local officials came up with a novel solution to maintain balance.
The new method of assigning students by their socio-economic background rather than race helped to keep campuses integrated. Adopted in 2000, it quickly became a blueprint for other school systems.
That policy, however, has never sat well with many suburban parents — often white and middle class — who argue that the student assignment plan sends their kids too far from home. And a new school board, swept into office by those vocal parents, appears poised to scrap it in a vote scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
The issue has brought the term "segregation" and the weight of history into recent school board meetings. Some parents and students around the state capital are now imploring their newly elected leaders to back away from their plan to drastically alter the diversity policy.
"Please preserve the New South. Don't take us back to the Old South," parent Robert Siegel told the school board.
Reversing the diversity rules would follow a cascade of similar shifts around the South, and particularly in North Carolina, which once was a model of desegregation. Now the state is increasingly starting to mirror an era many thought had past: On one side of the state, in the coastal town of Wilmington, an elementary school of several hundred students has just one who is black. On the other, in the banking hub of Charlotte, a primary school of similar size has just one student who is white.
In the military town of Goldsboro, starkly divided schools have led civil rights leaders to accuse local school officials of creating "an apartheid district."
Ron Margiotta, the new board chairman in Wake County, vowed that the change there was in the interest of students because it would allow parents more options and refocus families on the schools in their neighborhood. He bristled at any suggestion that the move had something to do with race.
"It's something that offends me," Margiotta said in an interview. "Nobody's going to go back to Jim Crow days."
The diversity policy in Wake County became a popular model in 2007, when the Supreme Court limited the use of race in how districts assign students. Its current policy sends students to schools to achieve socioeconomic diversity, which also improved racial diversity by frequently sending lower income black children from the city's center to predominantly white schools in the suburbs. Some schools also created magnet programs to attract students from other neighborhoods with advanced courses in foreign language, science and other topics.
Margiotta said the busing program has not helped minority students and has distracted from focusing on stronger education policy.
"What we're doing isn't working," Margiotta said.
But Ebere Collins, a black mother of two students in the district, said her son travels one hour by bus to get from his home in Raleigh to a middle school in the suburb of Wake Forest. While the trip is long, she feels it helps her son mingle with people outside of the neighborhood and ensures that all students have access to the same resources.
"Mix them up, let them experience each other," she said. "By scattering them around, they will enjoy the benefits other people are enjoying."
Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor who studies busing and civil rights, said the entire South has been resegregating for the past 20 years — which he deemed "a gigantic historic tragedy." He praised Wake County's current policy and warned that a renewed focus on neighborhood school assignment will be most damaging to children who come from poor or uneducated families because those students benefit most from integration.
"What it does when you go to 'neighborhood' schools is it means that you put the kids who are most affected by school opportunity in the schools with the weakest opportunity," Orfield said. "That's a tragedy."
If the diversity policy is pulled back, Orfield said, Raleigh can expect to see some of the same impoverished, troubled schools as Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.
In Charlotte, the site of a groundbreaking Supreme Court case that led to three decades of busing to ensure racial balance, schools have spent much of the past several years resegregating after getting federal court approval to allow parents more choice of where to send their kids.
At Beverly Woods Elementary, just north of the Quail Hollow Country Club that hosts a namesake PGA Tour event, 79 percent of the students are white. A few miles up the road, at Montclaire Elementary, only 4 percent of the students — just 19 out of 450 — are white.
There are no plans in Charlotte to revisit busing. Pamela Grundy, a parent in Charlotte who has decried the divisions within the school district, said leaders in Raleigh should take notice.
"The lesson of Charlotte is that desegregation will go away so quickly. Once you lose it, you can't get it back," she said.
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