The Educational Equality Debate in Wake County
Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In Raleigh, North Carolina, the last year has been fraught with turmoil over a school reassignment plan that has been in place since 2000. The Wake County economic integration plan redistributed the socioeconomic mix of students in schools by busing students to other schools. The goal of the plan was to strike a better balance in the district, so that poor children were not attending schools with high percentages of other poor children. Some parents were upset because the plan placed their children in schools outside their immediate neighborhoods and resulted in longer bus rides. However, the data indicated that the plan was working to improve test scores for some groups of students, including black and Hispanic students.
Although the plan may seem unusual, it stems from sociological research conducted by James Coleman and other researchers in the 1960s on educational inequality. The research team undertook what was then the largest examination of students and schools in the U.S. They examined the effects of school resources and other school-level variables on student outcomes and found that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student's own social background, than is any other school factor.” These findings suggested that black students would perform better in more integrated schools than they would in the mostly segregated schools that existed at the time. This research spurred the implementation of desegregation busing in school districts across the United States.
By the 1969 case of Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, just three years after the publication of the Coleman Report, the mandate was clear that state and local governments must work to integrate schools and the racial composition of schools began to change. From the mid-1960s to the early-1970s, the percentage of black students in overwhelmingly majority (90-100%) non-white schools, dropped by nearly 50%. However, subsequent court cases began to dismantle integration programs and black parents were left with limited legal options just as “white flight” began to take hold and large numbers of white families moved to the suburbs.
In 2000, the decision to integrate students in Wake County on the basis of economic status instead of race was essentially a new way of looking at an old problem. However, when a 2007 court case ruled that school districts could no longer assign students to schools for the singular purpose of racial integration, the few districts using an integration plan like Raleigh's garnered a lot of national attention. If integration plans were to be used at all, the economic model seemed like the only option.
So, why all the fuss over what some call “forced” integration plans? Should individuals be able to choose to self-segregate and put their children in schools with similar other children, whether that similarity is based on race, class, or both? The passion of this debate comes from the notion that all students should have an equal opportunity in their education. Many believe that “separate is inherently unequal” applies to any categorization in the spectrum of inequality, whether race, class, or otherwise.
From the days of the earliest busing orders, both policymakers and education researchers have attempted to determine if integrating schools improves academic outcomes for students. Scholars have suggested a number of different ways that the integration of students might have some impact, but analyzing non-experimental data is difficult and can sometimes lead to misinformed conclusions. Additionally, the results of quantitative data are no comparison to the emotional firepower of the impassioned pleas of citizens. Most parents in Wake County aren't reading the Coleman Report or the any of the research. Instead, they draw upon their own experience opinions about the plan. The two sides in this debate have butted heads in a case of individual choice vs. public equality. A majority of voters in Raleigh elected a school board that promised to end the integration plan and those board members had to listen to their constituents.
Whether beneficial or not, it seems that the idea of economic integration may be on the way out. In March of this year, the Raleigh school board voted to end the reassignment plan. It remains to be seen whether other districts across the nation will end their reassignment plans as well. How might the mixing of students based on socioeconomic status lead to changes in their academic outcomes? What other alternatives might school districts be able to implement in order to provide students with equal opportunities for education?