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Arrests and Federal Reviews Bring Attention to Wake County

Many fear resegregation will occur in the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System after it changed busing policy.
On July 20, Andrea Charity, left, and Monique Davis marched down Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, N.C. along with 1,000 demonstrators to protest Wake County school board's decision to end their busing-for-diversity program.

Due to heightened vigilance regarding minority achievement, districts across the country are under scrutiny. One of these is the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System. Recently the Wake County school board decided to change the way it handles student assignments and busing between schools. Board members voted 5-4 on March 23 to end forced busing, a method initiated in the 1970s to promote diversity in public schools. A district of 850 square miles, including Raleigh, it is the 18th-largest school district in the nation and has served as a national model of socioeconomic and racial integration, which, many fear, may change under the new student assignment model. After the new model was announced earlier this year, 19 were arrested while protesting the decision.

Wake County Board of Education Chair Ron Margiotta, left, talks with board member John Tedesco during a recess of a Wake County School Board meeting.

Controlled Choice

According to John Tedesco, Wake County board member and student assignment chair, this couldn't be further from the truth. "Controlled choice will open doors to new opportunities in how we provide equity in our schools and open our doors to new areas of innovation," he says.

Under the old model, the district was divided into 1,320 zones, or "nodes," comprised of an average of 50 families. These nodes were assessed and weighted with factors including the number of students receiving subsidized lunches. Each year nodes were assigned as a group and provided busing to and from a particular school. Under the new model, families will be divided into 15 to 20 larger zones and asked to rank their choice of school within that zone from 1 to 3.

This decision is poised to save the county $7 million to $10 million in transportation costs because buses will no longer be driving back and forth over such a large area.

Worries of Segregation

The new model has some worried. Those in favor of the old busing policy fear that eliminating it will create pockets of poverty, increase teacher turnover, and segregate schools.

Preliminary North Carolina graduation rate data show that the Wake County Public School System's overall rate held steady at 78.4 percent for a second year in a row. "Undoing that doesn't make a lot of sense when you're getting good results," says Cindy Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress. Because Wake County is known as a well integrated and high-achieving county, the effectiveness of its new model will certainly be closely monitored by other districts seeking a way to integrate more completely.