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Busing to end in Wake County, N.C. Goodbye, school diversity?

For a decade, Wake County, N.C., used busing to avoid having schools with high concentrations of students from poor families. Its school board voted this week to abandon its income-diversity goal in favor of a return to neighborhood schools.

By Staff writer / March 24, 2010

Raleigh, N.C., police officers try to quell chanters shouting, 'No resegregation in our town. Shut it down,' during a meeting of the Wake County School Board Tuesday, March 23. During a tense marathon meeting, the school board voted to stop busing students to achieve diversity.

Travis Long/Raleigh News and Observer/NEWSCOM

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The Wake County, N.C., school district has decided to reverse its income-based integration plan, which served as a national model for a decade as school systems sought alternatives to traditional racial-balancing plans.

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With protesters shouting in the background, the school board in Raleigh voted 5-to-4 to develop attendance zones closer to students’ homes. Advocates say the new plan will spare children long bus rides, while opponents claim it will lead to racial “resegregation” and more concentrated poverty in certain schools.

The decision is part of a national trend in which school districts are backing off active attempts to bring about diversity, says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The South had the most racially integrated schools in the nation after the civil rights efforts of the late 1960s, but “it’s going backwards fast now,” Mr. Orfield says.

Many districts looked to Wake County’s experience with income-based assignments after a 2007 US Supreme Court decision struck down voluntary desegregation plans that rely too heavily on race. Adopted in 2000, the county's plan set a goal for all schools to have no more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a proxy for poverty). By 2005-06, the school district has achieved that goal in 85 of 116 elementary and middle schools.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has led the opposition to the move in Wake County, which has been brewing since last fall, when voters elected a majority of board members who wanted to end the socioeconomic busing policy.

The head of the state NAACP, William Barber, wrote in a blog that “when children are packed into the most underfunded, most segregated, most high-poverty schools, it is nothing but a form of institutionalized child abuse.”

Research has shown that it’s more difficult to attract high-quality teachers to schools with concentrated poverty, and that students tend to do better academically if a significant number of their classmates plan to attend college and have other supports common among middle- and upper-income families, says Mark Dorosin, an attorney at the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina.

“There’s a lot of cachet right now around the idea of neighborhood schools ... but if the community is segregated residentially, what you are gaining in proximity, you are losing in diversity and in integration,” Mr. Dorosin says.

Parents and residents who spoke in favor of the new policy at Tuesday’s board meeting said busing for the purpose of economic diversity poses an unfair burden on families, in terms of costs to the district and in time that children could spend on learning rather than being transported.

“Nobody wants to be on the side of seeming like they want to resegregate schools,” says Andy Smarick, a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on education. “But the real challenge here for the school board is to figure out is: If we’re going to go back to a system based on [students’] home address, how do we make sure that every single kid has access to a high-performing school?”

The school board will take up to 15 months to develop the new assignment plan.

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