Friday, June 8, 2007

Wake County’s Socio-Economic Integration Plan: Analysis of an Idiosyncratic Landscape

In a 2004 report, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, looking to five school districts as models, argued that race-neutral student assignment plans could further the goals of racial integration in elementary and secondary schools. The Wake County Public School System (Wake County), located in North Carolina, was one such district. In 2000, Wake County abandoned its eighteen year-old voluntary desegregation plan in favor of a socio-economic status plan (SES Plan) that eliminated race as a factor in the creation of student assignments. The SES Plan, because it improved student achievement for blacks, whites, Hispanics, and special education students, led petitioners’ amici in the Louisville and Seattle school integration cases to proclaim that racial diversity may be achieved through race-neutral means. In short, they claimed that the story of Wake County demonstrates how socio-economic status is an appropriate proxy for race in the effort to realize Brown’s vision of school integration.

As explained in a 2005 New York Times report, a 2002 Spencer Foundation report, and the briefs of the Wake County Assistant Superintendent responsible for student assignments, 553 Social Scientists, and the Council of Great City Schools, the story of Wake County does not stand for this principle. This analysis examines three factors—Wake County’s unique demographics, increase in racial segregation, and unusually strong and extended commitment to educational diversity and equality—to demonstrate how the Wake County SES Plan is not a viable model for school districts seeking to promote racial diversity through student assignments. Before addressing these issues, it is first important to understand the historical context behind the SES Plan.

In 1976, to expedite the racial integration of the region, the Raleigh City Schools merged with the Wake County School System, combining the city and suburbs into one district. The district operated under a court-ordered desegregation plan until it achieved unitary status in 1982. Between 1982 and 1999, Wake County implemented a voluntary desegregation plan in which each school was required to have a minority enrollment between 15% and 45%. Comparatively, Wake County’s plan was a success: whereas 70% of the nation’s black students attended schools that were predominately black in 1999, only 21% of Wake County’s black students attended predominantly black schools.

In 2000, Wake County adopted a new assignment policy that eliminated race from consideration in student assignments. The new policy established the goal that no more than 40% of a school’s total enrollment could be comprised of students eligible for free-and-reduced-price lunch (FRL) and no more than 25% could be comprised of students performing below grade level on state exams. Under the SES Plan, Wake County’s diversity level, although it decreased slightly, remained comparatively high.

Wake County’s success is praiseworthy, but does not guarantee the viability of race-neutral policies beyond its borders. The New York Times report explained that Wake County’s “unusual circumstances” suggest that its positive results may not be replicable across the country. Similarly, the brief of 553 Social Scientists stated that, “Wake County has a set of special conditions rarely found in major schools districts” and that socioeconomic diversity has created racial integration only in districts that share these precise conditions (553 Social Scientists, Appendix 49).

First, and most importantly, Wake County’s success is particular to its demographics. Wake County is the 22nd largest school district in the nation; as of 2006-2007, it enrolled 128,072 students in 147 schools ( In 2005-2006, the student racial composition was: 55.4% white, 26.9% African American, 9.2% Hispanic, 4.7% Asian, 3.5% multiracial, and .3% American Indian. Id. While a fourth of Wake County students live in poverty, African American students are about ten times as likely to be poor as white students (553 Social Scientists, Appendix 49). According to Walt Sherlin, the Assistant Superintendent, Wake County maintained relatively high racial diversity under the SES Plan because, “its African-American and Latino students are nearly ten times more likely to be eligible for FRL than white students. . . . Put simply, Wake County has relatively few white students who come from low-income families and relatively few African-American and Latino students who come from more affluent families ” (Sherlin, 5). These numbers are unique because “their convergence in one county is rare” (Sherlin, 7). Accordingly, because of the significant racial disparity between poor and non-poor families, socio-economic integration in Wake County necessarily promotes racial integration. This fortunate by-product of the SES Plan would vanish if, for example, more low-income white students were to enroll in Wake County schools.

Second, despite the demographic factors linking racial diversity to socio-economic diversity, Wake County has experienced a decline in racial diversity under the SES Plan (Sherlin, 2). This fact presents a stark and clear warning: if socio-economic integration diminished racial diversity in Wake County, it would likely destroy it in the majority of districts, where “the distribution of poverty does not fall so heavily along racial lines” (Sherlin, 8).

Finally, Wake County’s success is not generalizable because, over the twenty-year period preceding the plan, residents of Wake County demonstrated an unusually strong and cohesive commitment to racial diversity and equality in their schools. This commitment was demonstrated throughout the 1990s, when well-funded anti-busing candidates consistently failed to win a seat on the school board (Silberman, 145). Therefore, Wake County was not starting from scratch in 2000; to the contrary, many parents were accustomed to and supportive of integration in the name of educational equality (Alan Finder, As Test Scores Jump, Raleigh Credits Integration by Income, N.Y. Times, September 25, 2005). Accordingly, in light of its distinctive and storied legacy of integration, Wake County was uniquely positioned to succeed the moment the SES Plan was initiated.

As the amicus briefs for the Council of Great City Schools (“illogical to require use of race-neutral methods when the compelling interest identified has an explicitly racial component. [Furthermore,] the research does not support [the] assertion . . . that socio-economic status could be used instead of race to achieve [racial diversity]”) and the 553 Social Scientists (“[r]esearch further supports the conclusion that race-conscious policies are necessary to maintain racial integration”) reveal, race-neutral policies are not as effective as race-conscious policies in achieving racial diversity. Wake County does not provide the reason to believe otherwise.

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