Tomorrow in North Carolina, Wake County will hold a school board runoff election between Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo. In most places, a school board runoff would barely warrant a mention in the local paper. But this single seat on the Wake County School Board has much higher stakes: this election will decide who will hold the majority on the nine-member board as it implements a controversial student assignment plan with national implications.
Until recently, Wake County, the 18th largest school district in the nation, was known as a strong academic district committed to integration. The district voluntarily adopted race-based integration in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled against using race-based criteria to integrate schools, the district began assigning students to schools based on the income level of their geographic zone. The goal was to avoid having a majority of low-income students at one school by capping the percentage of students receiving free-or-reduced lunch—a proxy for family income— at forty percent. This innovative plan served as a model for districts nationwide.
In the last decade, Wake County also experienced incredible growth. Since 2001, enrollment in the district has surged from 101,000 to 143,000 students, a 42% jump. The income-based assignment plan coupled with the enrollment increase meant that children sometimes were reassigned to maintain income balance in each school. Tim Simmons, a vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, a coalition of local business groups, said students who entered a school in kindergarten were often reassigned to a second school by the time they reached fifth grade. In 2009, frustrated parents voted in a conservative Republican majority with a ‘neighborhood schools’ platform to the Wake County School Board. A neighborhood schools plan would privilege proximity and stability at the expense of integrated schools.
Since then, Wake County has received much less flattering attention. After the NAACP lodged a complaint, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating whether new board policies were causing resegregation. Earlier this year, Arne Duncan wrote a letter to the school board arguing that “America’s strength has always been a function of its diversity, so it is troubling to see North Carolina’s Wake County school board take steps to reverse a long-standing policy to promote racial diversity in its schools.” Stephen Colbert skewered the board’s decision as “disintegration.” In the segment, Colbert asked, “What’s the use of living in a gated community if my kids go to school and get poor all over them?”
Under the new proposal approved by the outgoing, Republican-majority school board, families would have controlled choice: they could choose between multiple schools, including several nearby options and at least one high-performing school. Administrators would try to give families one of their top choices. The plan would promote stability by ensuring that once a student is in an elementary school, that student is guaranteed a seat at a specific middle and high school. Families in Southeast Raleigh, which has the highest concentration of low-income families, and other low-income neighborhoods would be able to send their children to a magnet school, most of which are in Southeast Raleigh, or to a high-performing school. In order for this plan to promote integrated schools, parents must exercise their right to choose. As the Independent Weekly pointed out, if parents “don’t exercise [their choice]—if they remain on the sidelines while other parents do choose—the result will be a new phenomenon for Wake County: a cluster of non-magnet “leftover” schools in low-income areas of Raleigh and East Wake characterized by high numbers of low-achieving kids.”
The stakes are high. Schools today are more segregated by race and class today than the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, 43 years ago. Segregation causes negative teacher distribution effects: research demonstrates that high-poverty schools have lower-qualified teachers and principals, the two most important in-school factors for student achievement. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system eliminated their busing program and reverted to racially segregated neighborhood schools, high-performing teachers left schools that became overwhelmingly black and poor. Integrating poor students into low-poverty schools can also increase their student achievement. For example, in Montgomery County, MD, poor families are randomly assigned to public housing. Poor students who attended the lowest-poverty schools had significantly better academic outcomes than similar students who attended schools that served a greater percentage of poor students.
As of October 24th, Heather Losurdo raised $82,357, a record for a Wake school board election. Early voting ballots for the runoff election outnumber the ballots for the October 11th general election. Residents of District 3 seem to know the stakes, and the rest of us will be watching closely to see what they decide.