RALEIGH, N.C. — As courts and legislatures move to outlaw race-based school assignments, a North Carolina school district is taking a bold new tack to ensure diversity in its schools.
Beginning this fall, the Wake County district will limit the number of low-income and underperforming students at each of its 110 schools. Only 40 percent of a school's students can be eligible for the federal free-lunch program, and only 25 percent can be performing below grade level. If a school exceeds either of those numbers, the students will be bused to different schools
The experiment is a direct result of a court order issued last month that prohibited school assignments based on race. And as integration laws fall from Tallahassee, Fla., to Kansas City, Mo., Wake's gambit may play a defining role in determining the future of integration.
"What's happening in [Wake] is extremely important, and a lot of people are watching to see if this can become a model program," says Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, who has studied evolving trends in race law. "This will define what desegregation in the 21st century is going to look like."
Although LaCrosse, Wis., began using socio-economic data in school assignments in the early 1990s, the Wake County decision affects by far the largest number of students, with more than 3,000 facing reassignments.
And unlike the Wisconsin scenario, Wake County's decision marks the first reaction to a new court trend that's likely to affect urban schools nationwide.
Already, courts from Massachusetts to California have come down on different sides of the issue. While a judge in Kansas City threw out court-ordered busing, courts in New York and California have allowed some race-based factors to play into school assignments. Meanwhile, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, ruled against it in two recent cases, setting the scene for the Wake decision.
Legal experts expect the US Supreme Court to make a ruling soon. In fact, civil rights groups, worried that the high court would support the anti-affirmative action decisions, have urged districts not to appeal.
Even without a high court ruling, some say the damage has already been done in many places. "It's clear to me that some districts, following this [Fourth Circuit] ruling, will no longer embark on any effort to have some type of diversity in the student body," says Ann Majestic, general counsel for Wake County schools.
Despite these challenges, Wake County has made integration one of its foremost goals. For example, school board member Beverly Clark says integration is a key ingredient in an ambitious district goal to have 95 percent of students at or above grade level in standardized tests by 2003.
"The real challenge is understanding that all children, our whole community, in fact, benefits when the children are all learning," she says. "Our job is to make sure that such learning environments exist in every school."
Although a recent study says that poorer children sometimes enter the school district with half the vocabulary of middle-class classmates, teachers and other studies say knowledge "rubs off" among students.
But the forced addition of diversity has led to division in some schools. At Joyner Elementary School, parents lashed out at the district last month after it decided to send 40 "high needs" children from a poor area to the upper-class neighborhood school.
Parents claimed that those mostly black students would take class time away from their children. It was the kind of cultural tension that officials worry could unravel integration completely if nothing is done to maintain diversity. Indeed, some observers say hidden racial fears still permeate the South and other parts of the country, and could drive resegregation.
For critics, though, the idea of letting integration unravel is just fine. There is little proof that busing and race quotas have boosted grades, says Kathy Kersten, a cultural studies fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in St. Paul, Minn.
She points out that Kansas City spent more than $1 billion on its busing program but reaped no test score improvements. Besides, Ms. Kersten adds, students at mostly black and minority schools do better in an environment where everyone comes from a similar background.
"The hope is that, if a poor, black kid sits next to a middle-class white child, somehow, through osmosis, the academic success is going to rub off on the other child - and it just doesn't happen," she says.
In defense of its decision, Wake County says its diversity program also has other key goals. Most important, it's necessary to prevent an exodus from schools in poorer neighborhoods to newer ones in the suburbs.
If that were to happen, says board member Ms. Clark, the money would likely follow the middle-class white kids.
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