Among the key elections around the South yesterday was a runoff race for a school board seat in Wake County, N.C., home to the state capital of Raleigh -- the outcome of which many fear could lead to racial re-segregation.
The Wake County school system -- the largest in North Carolina and the 18th largest nationally -- has gotten notice for innovative integration efforts that since 2000 have relied not on race but on income levels reported by families on applications for federally subsidized lunches, with the system aiming for a maximum concentration of 40% low-income students at any one school.
A recent book by Syracuse University professor Gerald Grant titled "Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh" compares Raleigh, where the high-performing school system has contributed to increased prosperity across the metro area, to Syracuse, where a troubled school system has complicated urban revitalization efforts.
As Grant -- whose grandchildren attend Raleigh schools -- told the Independent Weekly newspaper in an interview earlier this year:
Essentially, the book argues that Raleigh tore down the wall when they merged the county and city school systems back in 1976. The research is very clear that having the right mix of kids socioeconomically, as Wake County does, has enormous benefits for poor kids without hurting rich kids.
But Wake County relies in part on busing students to create and maintain diversity in the classroom -- and that has sparked outspoken opposition from many parents who complained about the need to reassign thousands of children to different schools from year to year. With the help of local Republicans, they founded several political action committees to back candidates that oppose the busing policy and support a return to neighborhood schools.
Meanwhile, the N.C. Association of Educators, the Wake County Democratic Party and an alliance of community leaders and businessmen supported the diversity policy. They pointed in warning to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, where a court order ended the racial diversity policy in 2002, resulting in rapid re-segregation as well as significantly lower test scores overall than Wake County's.
Last month, elections were held for four officially nonpartisan seats on Wake County's nine-member board. In order to change the diversity policy, opposition candidates needed to win all four seats, which are elected by district. In the October race, three of the anti-busing candidates won outright -- and the fourth won by a landslide in yesterday's runoff.
But the new board could face a legal battle if it tries to end the system's diversity policy.
The N.C. NAACP warned that it may sue in order to force Wake County to continue its integration efforts. At a rally held last week in support of school diversity, Rev. William Barber, the civil-rights group's president, said that creating high-poverty, segregated schools is "nothing more than a form of institutional child abuse."
John Tedesco -- the anti-busing candidate and New Jersey transplant who won yesterday's runoff -- has said that the new coalition of board members has no intention of re-segregating the schools. But given the stark realities of how race and class figure into housing patterns, that would undoubtedly be the result of a return to neighborhood schools.