School Board Vote Called 'Modern-Day Segregation'

In a controversial move, the Wake County School board in North Carolina voted to end its "busing-for-diversity" program in favor of sending children to schools in their own neighborhood. Host Liane Hansen talks with Superintendent Tony Tata, a military brigadier general and the former COO of the D.C. school system.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In North Carolina, the public school system in Wake County has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate about diversity in education. Last March, the school board voted to dismantle its school busing policy. It used socio-economic status as a factor when assigning students to schools within the district. The 5-to-4 vote was in favor of placing students closer to where they live. Critics of the decision say it amounts to modern day segregation.

Tony Tata is the superintendent of Wake County Public Schools, the largest school district in North Carolina.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. TONY TATA (Superintendent, Wake County Public School System): Hi, Liane. It's great to be here.

HANSEN: You've been job for a short time, right? You started on January 31st?

Mr. TATA: That's correct.

HANSEN: And the school board already voted to end the busing-for-diversity policy well before you joined the district. Give us a little history. What was the board's guiding motivation?

Mr. TATA: Well, the real issue is exploding growth in Wake County. We're adding 3,000 to 5,000 new students every school year and you would have students in the school system that would be changing schools every year, two years. I've talked to many parents, as I visited now 29 schools in the last 19 days. So about 18 months ago, you had an election and the frustration had reached a pitch. And so in a new board was voted in on what they consider to be a mandate of stabilizing the school assignment, student assignment policy.

HANSEN: So the student assignment policy is being rethought right now. But the board's vote prompted the last superintendent to resign to protest it. Why did you want the job?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TATA: Well, it's a great school system. You know, we've got a good problem here. We have increasing student enrollment which a lot of large counties and large city school districts do not have - 143,000 students, 163 schools.

HANSEN: And are all those 163 schools, to coin a phrase, created equal?

Mr. TATA: Yes, I would say they are. And what I left out is that we have 32 magnet schools, designed originally to attract suburban students into the inner city and vice versa. And we find that we're not serving our economically disadvantaged students as well as we ought to. And so that's really my charge and my challenge, is to figure out how to lift those economically disadvantaged students up to the next level, while still providing tremendous opportunities for the gifted and the advanced placement students that we have.

HANSEN: There has been a lot of attention on the decision. The NAACP has staged protest marches. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called the actions troubling. Complaints have been filed with the Education Department's Office For Civil Rights.

How do you respond to those who are saying that Wake County now risks segregating its schools again?

Mr. TATA: I would respond that thats simply not going to happen. The idea that we are going to wholesale, throw everything out is, I think, just not the case. And we're going to find a way to make this the best school system in the country because, I mean there's no other option. These children deserve it.

HANSEN: Tony Tata is the superintendent of North Carolina's Wake County Public School District. We spoke to him about the school board's decision to end its long-standing busing for diversity policy.

Mr. Tata, thank you for your time.

Mr. TATA: Liane, my pleasure.

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