September 23, 2010

The Educational Equality Debate in Wake County

image By S. Michael Gaddis

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?


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I think the author, S. Michael Gaddis, did a really job explaining the reassignment plan and telling how it affected the students and communities. Also I liked how he explained why they started this movment; to fix the inequality problem with students, and I agree that this is definetly a problem.

"What other alternatives might school districts be able to implement in order to provide students with equal opportunities for education?"

Does anyone have an answer to this question?

The Educational Equality Debate in Wake County By S.Michael Gaddis made a very clear point about schools and the way children receive their education. Gaddis explained the education system well and the effects of what has happened, or will happen. Also makes it known that there is a problem that needs to be handle.

I think that S. Michael Gaddis did a very good job of explaining the reassignment plan and how it affected students in Raleigh. He made it very clear that students actually score better on tests when the economic classes are integrated, and I liked how he kept us up to date with what is going on presently with the reassignment plan.

Hi. I'm curious what research you were linking to. The link in the article to "" is broken.

Sorry about that...the link should be

The field research conducted by James Coleman is very intriguing. Out of all the variables in a student's education, “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement... than is any other school factor.” Although the test scores of non-white students may increase with integration, such quantitative data is probably not as important as the emotional distress and tension that is caused. I can see the reasoning for economic integration, but forcing something like that can cause conflict and infringe on people's personal freedom to choose a school.

I liked how this author made it a point to have not just the school community or board's opinions but parents and others. I believe that students who do need help in school should be in a more special school but it shouldn't be by how much your parents make. Public schools are for the public and private schools are the schools for people that have the money to pay for a better education. But i also think these schoolc should have academic scholorships for talented students. This country has already segregated children because of their skin and now they're working on segregating schools based of family income, that is not right.

The author did a great job revealing the inequality and integration problems in school systems. He not only backed up his story with sociological research, like the field study conducted by James Colman, but also followed the story to recent times.

I think the author did a good job on stating how this plan can affect everyone. Everything has its good and bad sides. I also think that something that is bad is that the students shouldn't be segregated based on their family income.

Why Vouchers?...provides the answer to the question:

"What other alternatives might school districts be able to implement in order to provide students with equal opportunities for education?"

Why Vouchers???

Because the public school system is failing miserably with bloated bureaucracies that compound the inefficiencies of teacher labor unions with school administrators that are graduating students at only a 50-80% rate compared to private schools that graduate students at a 90-95% rate for much less money and with the great majorities of these same students heading to a 4 year college. Many states like New York, California and Illinois that are facing bankruptcy are being forced to restructure their schools that have the lowest success rates in spite of record level school spending where the average spending per student exceeds $10,000 per year. This out of control state spending has not yielded better student test scores, improved student attendance and retention rates, or have made the students in these failing schools more prepared for life post-high school. Public education for the poor is especially bad and school vouchers would finally give the most vulnerable in our society the power to choose a better education for their children in the same way the wealthier families always have. This new idea seems to be improving schools in a very short time. Parents have a right to be unhappy with their neighborhood public schools that have a graduation rate of 50-80% but unlike lower income families that have to settle with incompetent teachers, the upper middle class have always had the power and choice in education to 'fire their public school teachers' because they can afford to bypass these intellectual wastelands for the better schools that can actually teach children math, science, reading, history, grammer and prepare them adequately for college. Our government officials have proven over and over again to be less efficient than the private sector so why shouldn't our poor families be given the same benefits of choice to have their children in better performing private schools as families with better financial means? Why does Fed Ex and UPS provide a better service than the US Postal Service and are profitable while the US Postal Service is reporting a loss for 2010 of almost 7 billion dollars? Yep... another example of government incompetance. Let's give the poor a break and take them out of public schools!

Life is full of inequalities.I do not understand why parents would not allow or even disagree with having their children endure the long bus rides if it was all for the intentions of helping their children excel in education. It is a terrible fact that minorities tend to receive lower test scores than whites, usually due to their lack of equality in education standards.Everyone should have the same educational opportunities because then the job-related world may then even out as far as who is qualified for what type of job. the better education available and given to all people, no matter the race, the better the level of security this country will hold.

I think this post is good, because it involves everyone's feelings and how it can cause problems in the school system.

I'm a high school student and I think it's weird that just the setting of the school can change test scores within different races or how test scores of a student with a family with a low income can be increased when put in a better school. But I think that everyone deserves the same opportunites and it shouldn't be based on their ethnicity or the fact that they come from a low income family.

I think that this social reassignment plan is interesting. I think that it has the potential to get kids to achieve higher scores because there is more pressure to achieve.

I think that the families should be the ones who choose whether or not they want their sons and daughters to go to a more "financially stable" school. It seems that the parents really did not have a problem with their children going to the "poor" school, so why fix what is not broke? If the families really did care about their child's education that much they should either move to a better school district or try to organize a transportation system for their child. The state should not be the one saying what is best for the family. The family knows the county just wants to boost its test scores and they just do not care.

Education has a dual function of ingraining students with societal norms of our culture and equipping them with necessary tools for placement in the work force. This institution has the capability of cultivating human capital that would otherwise remain buried in the depths of poverty. Wake County has a great deal of residential segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines. The school system’s previous socioeconomic integration plan not only ensured that each student had an equal opportunity for future success, but also improved the quality of learning within classrooms. The best way for Wake County schools to fulfill their duty to provide an optimal education for all students is to reinstate this plan.

Peer effects have been shown to play a critical role in a student’s educational experience. Students surrounded by high performing students often perform better. An article by Susan Leigh Flinspach and Karen E. Banks states that students are most successful when they are in socioeconomically diverse schools in which the concentration of poverty is minimized. This claim is supported by evidence from the Coleman Report which suggested that students in high poverty schools will perform at lower levels than the same students in low poverty schools. The current school assignments minimize the amount of low income and under achieving students at each school. This helps teachers by decreasing the number of students with high needs, creating space for improvement in the overall quality of teaching. Since the introduction of the socioeconomic integration plan, the school system has seen progress towards higher student proficiency, with the most dramatic gains in the minority community.

This plan has maintained racially desegregated schools in Wake County because there is a strong correlation between the percentage of minority students and the percentage of low income or low achieving students. The effects of this plan being removed are decreased interracial contact and high poverty in these racially segregated schools. This can lead to a differential quality of education and differential opportunity for success in the future. In my own personal experience as a product of the education system of Cumberland County, I can attest to the disparities that exist between racially distinct schools. In my home county, residential segregation is a dominating characteristic that partly contributes to the racial make-up of schools. There are minority schools, white schools, and diverse schools that each have distinct perceptions associated with them and test scores that define their level of success in educating students. The minority schools continue to drag behind the majority white schools in overall student performance. If a plan similar to the socioeconomic integration plan of Wake County was enforced in Cumberland County, the schools would become more diverse as the enclaves for white flight would be closed. Resultantly, this could potentially lead to more equalized student achievement across the racial spectrum.

Through an evaluation of the reasons aforesaid, one could considerably argue that the integration plan was beneficial to overall student achievement. The increasing achievement amongst all socioeconomic statuses is evidence of the claim, thus indicating this plan as a successful attempt at addressing the societal expectancies of education.

After the Wake County school board eliminated race and ethnicity as factors in its school assignment policy, the county introduced a new plan to integrate schools based on socioeconomic status (SES), a plan that seems to be highly beneficial. In areas where schools are still segregated and achievement is split on socioeconomic lines, integration based on SES allows for equal opportunities for academic achievement across the board. After implementing its race-neutral policy, Wake County saw improvement as both the achievement gaps in reading and math for grades 3-8 narrowed at a faster rate than their respective state achievement gaps (Flinspach and Banks, 2005). Based on these results, Wake County’s decision to integrate based on SES should continue in order to benefit students as long as one concern is addressed. Parents in Wake County base their opinions upon personal experiences—rather than research findings—as they raise their collective, over-arching concern regarding achievement results.

Does this plan really benefit all students? If a wealthy family moves their child from a high-achieving school to an institution lacking in such prestige, how can their child possibly excel? After all, the Coleman Report illustrates that all students—regardless of SES—that attend high-poverty schools generally perform worse than their peers in other schools. With this in mind, how does this reassignment plan take this finding into account and ensure that it benefit students across socioeconomic classes? Do students’ exposures to such diversity become a distraction in the classroom?

In order to assure that this race-neutral integration plan does not posit these concerns, the quality of administrators, teachers, and resources—three items that parents tend to relate to student success—must be addressed. Furthermore, the quality of these three factors from high-performing and low-performing schools should not “meet in the middle,” forcing the former to drop down and the latter to rise up. Instead, the bar should be set high for schools’ administrations, teaching staffs, and resources in the integration plan.

The importance of school staffs and their influence on student achievement is elucidated by the teachers featured in Mitchell 20 (, a documentary that tells the story of twenty dedicated teachers at a low-performing, impoverished elementary school collaborating to attain National Board Certification. (This certification is essentially a teacher's equivalent to a lawyer's bar exam.) After only two years of working towards their goal, a good number of teachers attained certification; but more importantly, the school started to attain adequate yearly progress, or AYP, in consecutive years. The teachers of Mitchell Elementary illustrate the importance of teacher quality and collaboration with administrators. If Wake County’s integration plan was paired with a program that would ensure adequate teacher preparation, teachers from low-performing schools would become more proficient in the classroom, thus allowing students to grow and gain achievement regardless of their individual socioeconomic status. With this bolstered chance for success, there would little left to elicit concerns among parents regarding disparities in achievement across schools.

When expectations are held high for administrators and teachers, students are expected to achieve also, thereby increasing their opportunity to excel in school. With responsible administrators come capable teachers; and as long as teachers are concerned with their students’ achievement, educators and administrators can work together to attain adequate resources for their classrooms. Moreover, this high level of expectation would effectively negate the possible issues surrounding the levels of student comfort and apprehension towards socioeconomic diversity illustrated by families in Wake County. Overall, this plan to integrate Wake County schools on the basis of SES could prove to be highly effective in raising student achievement so long as the bar is placed high for administrators, teachers, and school resources.

After reading the article we have concluded that the socioeconomic diversity is essential in student achievement across the United States and specifically in Wake County. As Gaddis points out in his blog, James Coleman found that the “social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement.” Wake County’s current plan is bettering standardized tests scores for minority students, while not negatively affecting already well-performing students. Ultimately, socioeconomic integration is having a positive effect on each student’s achievement growth.

Rumberger and Palardy’s study in the book School Resegregation claims that “the average SES [socioeconomic status] of students high schools had as much impact on their achievement growth during high school as their own SES”. According to this claim integration based on economic class levels the academic playing field among all students; this in turn leads to a betterment of the school as a whole. This improves the school because no students are favored which leads to a smaller achievement gap.

Economic equality among the schools also comes with this plan because the allocation of money is no longer based on the segregated neighborhoods. The resources are then equally allocated instead of having rich and poor neighborhoods that in turn support rich and poor schools. By having equal opportunities to achieve as well as equal funding, the schools reputation will improve which leads to less white flight, better resources, and improved teacher quality.

Students from Wake County schools further support these claims. Kayla of Broughton High School pointed out that prior to the socioeconomic integration plan, Broughton was a low performing inner city school with the majority of students in a lower socioeconomic class. It has since become more diverse with regards to economic class and is now in the top three hundred schools in the nation. Alex, a student of Middle Creek High School, could see an increase in diversity in his school but also an increase in segregation within the school. He felt that students of different socioeconomic levels were tracked into different classes, which helped to maintain this segregation. While the plan improved his school, he would like to see further actions taken to integrate students within the school.

These examples show that while there is still room for improvement, the socioeconomic integration of Wake County schools is serving as the important first step towards equality of education for all students.

In response to Michael Gaddis’s article on desegregation in Wake County schools, we conclude that the dismantling of the socioeconomic–based integration plan can only harm schools in Wake County. There are several factors that show the benefits of such a diversity plan.
As part of our course, “Equality of Education Opportunity,” we conducted a study interviewing 38 recent high school graduates about their educational experiences. The interviews focused partly on educational disparities in relation to race, socioeconomic status, residential location, and family involvement. One pattern that emerged from our interviews regarded parental involvement and the students’ experience. Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tended to report higher levels of parental involvement. With higher parental involvement, could come more support and resources not just for the student, but also for the school as a whole.
A common assignment method for schools is through assigning based on residential areas. The greatest problem with this is high levels of residential segregation, both in race and socioeconomic status, which leads to racial and socioeconomic disparities within school districts. The link to the below map demonstrates just how segregated residential areas in Wake County truly are.

If schools are completely desegregated, parents of higher socioeconomic status cannot try to keep their children in the “wealthier” schools, and thus perpetuating the cycle of socioeconomic segregation.
According to our own research and experiences, schools segregated by race and socioeconomic status have been observed to have less parental involvement, less experienced teachers, less money, less quality of education, more preferential treatment, and a worse reputation in high poverty school. This is further evidenced by studies performed Holme and Wells, which suggested high minority schools tend to be much more low-performing than fully desegregated schools.
According to a sociological report conducted by James Coleman, “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own background, than any other school.” Due to this evidence, and all the above information, we believe that desegregating schools by race and socioeconomic status is the most beneficial plan to all students. We are in favor of supporting a diversity plan for all schools. The example of Wake County shows how important desegregation is for social progress regarding education.

The author did a spectacular job at explaining the Reassignment Plan and explaining how it effects the students. I am curious, however, as to why parents would disagree to help their child excel just because it puts the child farther away from the neighborhood, encouraging longer bus rides? If anything, the education of a child is far more important than the distances he has to go to acquire that knowledge.

Original author here... If you are interested, I have written a follow-up piece on my blog that tracks the progress of the situation since last fall. Check it out at


I think parents should have the right to enroll their kids where they want, but if integration is improving their academic scores then parents should keep their kids in that school.

The author makes a very interesting point about choice versus public good. On the one hand these parents move into certain neighborhoods to go to a particular school. On the other hand the current system of taxes for school funds and neighborhood segregation leads to massive inequality within the public school system. I am interested to hear more about the opinions of the politicians involved in this debate. Do they have better solutions?

Fantastic post. As a former student of the Wake County school system, I must say you did a great job of capturing the essence of this conflict.

Sure, separate implies unequal, but that does not trump the individuals' (or parents') right to choose where to get education. A forced integration is a denial (small, but still) of the right to decide for one's self. The market forces will balance things out in the end and give the most utility to the most people, but that can only happen if we let the market do its work unabridged. We cannot force equality.

This was a rather interesting post. I must agree that plans like that are interesting but not needed. I believe that it is up to the parent and/or student on which school they attend. As long as transportation is available and the students are allowed to attend, I don't understand why those students shouldn't try to go to those schools if that is what they really want. A student should not be forced to go to another school. As long as it is an option, I think that is fair enough.

It wouldn't be necessary to have extra long bus rides or integration if all schools were created equally, but since schools are definitely not created equally, I don't understand why parents wouldn't want their children to have better academic grades or results.

I found that your explanation of the student integration plan was very clear and easy to understand. I had never previously before considered that my fellow students around me affected my performance significantly although I do agree that not all students are at access to the same education although the curriculum may technically be the same. Equality in education needs to be a priority as some are at an unfair start just by where they live. At the same time, forced integration doesn't seem right either. It's a very interesting situation.

As the non-white test score could go up post-integration,this doesn't outweigh the harm, emotional and mental, done. I understand the thoughts behind the idea, but it seems like that system, imposed, would lead to a questionable amount of freedom and rights for the students.

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