N.C. School Board Revamps Long-Standing Diversity Policy

Since 2000, the Wake County school board in North Carolina assigned children to public schools partly based on income. The policy was meant to maintain diversity in the system. But now the school system is doing away with the policy and the state's NAACP is protesting the change. North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William J. Barber says the current policy is working just fine and changing it will roll back years of work to diversify the city's schools. Wake County School Board member John Tedesco, who is leading the effort to repeal the income-based policy, says he has no intention of making the schools less diverse. Tedesco says the revision is necessary to manage the system's resources and to present parents with more choice.

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Now we go to North Carolina where a debate is raging over a change in school districting plans. In the year 2000, the Wade County school board assigned children to public schools based in part on income. This plan was part of the district's diversity policy and said each institution could have no more than 40 percent of students on free or reduced lunch and no more than 25 percent scoring below grade level.

With 144,000 students, Wade County was one of America's largest districts to maintain school diversity through socioeconomic status. Now the board is moving to replace its old policy and board member John Tedesco is leading the charge. Income would not be a factor in the proposed policy. Parents and kids would choose from many magnet schools. We're going to speak with Mr. Tedesco about this is a few minutes.

But, first, the state's NAACP is standing against the change. To understand why, we've called the president, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. WILLIAM J. BARBER (NAACP President, North Carolina): So glad to be here with you all today.

MARTIN: What is your concern about the plan? About this new policy? What do you think the intention is?

Dr. BARBER: Well, let me give a little context first, in that there is a broad coalition including four members of the school board, one African-American, three whites, broad coalition of religious leaders, civic leaders, white, black, Hispanic who are against it. Not just the NAACP the mayor, the city council is against it. The county commissioners have come out against it because we believe in high quality constitutional diverse schools for all children.

We believe that's what our federal constitution requires. That's our state constitution requires. We now have five ideologues, ultra conservative white (unintelligible) who have came into the board last year and they are deciding to scrap their plan, which was developed in the wake of years of North Carolina not complying with laws. In the wake of '71, the school board saying they would hold onto neighbor schools unless it was forced through.

This plan, which was developed by blacks and white is powerful. We know what works. We know that we're trying to build schools, excellent schools and not walls. You have to stop desegregation and promote diversity. You have to have high quality teachers for all the classrooms. You have to have a focus on math, science, reading and history. And social economic diversity, according to all the research, is a critical piece of these seven things.

MARTIN: Okay, but are those goals being achieved now?

Dr. BARBER: Yes, because since 1997, and up to 2007, there was a study done that said that African-American achievement went from 40 percent at grade level to 80 percent at grade level. 2005, The New York Times' article show that in four years that had taken place. Now, is it perfect? No. But social economic diversity is not the cause. In other words, to try to make social and economic diversity, the enemy of school excellence(ph) is wrong.

MARTIN: But if a new school board majority was elected last year on a platform supporting community schools, doesn't that suggest that some parents, at least the majority of parents, at least the majority of the parents voting want a change? If that's the case, how should that be accommodated?

Dr. BARBER: That's a great question. Only eight percent of the people voted. It's a one-vote margin. And the fact of the matter is that they did a survey once they got elected. And 94 percent of the people that answered their survey said they were satisfied with their school assignment. That this is not about (unintelligible) as they have tried to make it, because 99 percent of the kids go to school within 10 miles, 85 percent within five miles. The median average of a bus ride is 20 minutes. Socioeconomic diversity is a proven tool that connects to school achievement.

MARTIN: Wade County school board member John Tedesco was willing to be in the conversation with you today so that the three of us could talk together and address some of these questions together. But you were strongly against it. And I just wanted to ask may I ask why?

Dr. BARBER: No, that's no correct. You got the wrong information that I was strongly against it. I have no problem debating him. But a couple of things, Mr. Tedesco is not the chair of the board. And I am president of the North Carolina NAACP. I wanted to make sure that we were able to really get into the I'd be glad to come on.

But I think that you and the media should raise the question: You know, why is it a board member and not the chair? And make sure that you make - that it's clear that it's not just the NAACP, but it is, in fact, members of that school board. What I think...

MARTIN: Well, OK.

Dr. BARBER: ...you know, a powerful conversation is for John Tedesco to have even to have (unintelligible) him and school board members. And I'd be glad to come back on with him or the chair, as well.

MARTIN: Okay. And, finally, what happens now? What is the next step?

Dr. BARBER: We have committed with all of our coalition partners that we will engage in community education, voter participation. We will engage in litigation, because we believe that they are on the way to engage de facto resegregation. They've admitted their plan will create more high poverty, racially identifiable schools, which, in essence, is private schools with public dollars. And we believe that's de facto resegregation.

So we're going to continue to push forward. Many people have - we engaged, as you know, my team and others are considering in civil disobedience, only because this board has shut out, they have shut out in a major way, any person's public participation and really refused to engage in serious dialogue.

We have more than 100 years of experience with this at the NAACP. And yet, we will not even allow to put a 45-minute research (unintelligible) on the table undergirding why what all the scholars say that socioeconomic diversity is the key component - not the only - but a key component of student excellence. And it's wrong for them to create this false dichotomy.

MARTIN: Reverend William J. Barber is the president of North Carolina's NAACP. He was with us from member station KNCU at North Carolina Central. Thank you.

Dr. BARBER: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Bye-bye now.

Let's turn to John Tedesco now. He's working to create the new school assignment policy for Wake County, North Carolina's school district. He's with us now. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOHN TEDESCO (Board Member, Wake County Public Schools): Well, hello, I'm glad to be here with you and your listeners today.

MARTIN: Now, you were able to hear my conversation with Reverend Barber. And as I said, we did hope to have the three of us together. So I'm going to just ask you to pick up where he left off. And, you know, there's this old saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Was the system broken, in your view, or not? What are you trying to fix?

Mr. TEDESCO: Well, the system did have challenges. But if I might - and I don't want to digress too much - but just respond to the idea of conversation. And our board has been very generous in expanding public dialogue this year. We allow a half hour public comment in each meeting. And every meeting this year, we actually changed the rules to allow for over an hour of public comment at every single meeting the whole year. And we've been out in the community having district meetings with families, as well. So we've been engaging in public dialogue for an extensive time.

There were many groups in the community who asked for a 45-minute section of our agenda on a public meeting. And it's just not feasible to meet those demands for every group while we're trying to accomplish an agenda at every meeting.

MARTIN: Okay, so can we get back to the substance of what it is that you're hoping to accomplish with this new plan? What problem is it designed to address?

Mr. TEDESCO: Most definitely. Well, you ask the old adage: It ain't broke, don't fix. Is it broke? Well, in Wake County, we do not have a diversity problem, as some were to make it seem. We have a growth management problem. And our system, in terms of its design to manage for growth, has been extremely challenged in the last 10 years.

Wake County schools, with 162 schools this year and 144,000 children, is the largest school system in the state. And we're dealing with a county that's over 850 square miles. So geographically, it's very large. So we have to be able to manage for growth. The current assignment policy - and that's what it is. It's a student assignment policy that had many goals in it goals for managing capacity, goals for managing our fleet, and it had a diversity goal in it. And it was a noble goal at that.

And we value diversity. We're a very highly integrated community. The current assignment policy, and then the tools that made that policy work our software systems, our allocations - just weren't working as effectively. So we have many schools that were way overenrolled, some schools that were way under-enrolled, multiple reassignments to families year in and year out. And the ability to maintain stability for these families while maintaining operational efficiency for the system was significantly challenged.

MARTIN: So you're saying it's not working. You're saying that...

Mr. TEDESCO: Well it wasn't working at all.

MARTIN: Is that what you're saying it's not working, that the diversity policy is not working for its own goal?

Mr. TEDESCO: Most certainly. For its own goal, it wasn't working.

MARTIN: So why do you think, then, the NAACP is as upset about it as it is? I mean, the impression I got from Reverend Barber is that they are concerned that this is a backdoor method of dismantling the diversity goal or abandoning the diversity goal.

Mr. TEDESCO: Yeah, it is well, no.

MARTIN: Is that what you think?

Mr. TEDESCO: No. No. And I think what's happening, unfortunately, is that it's much easier in the public debate with localized media to get 30-second soundbites out there of words like segregation or resegregation that cause fear into the hearts of some people.

Unfortunately, it's just not the reality of the world we live in. I'm very fortunate to live in the dreams of someone like Dr. Martin Luther King. Here we are some 50, 60 years later, and I'm a younger man myself, only 35, having grown up in a very integrated world. I didn't know such ugliness or things like segregation. I couldn't even imagine what a world like that would look like.

And it's nothing that I would want to even create or fathom to create. So it's nothing that's in our goals or in our desire or in our interest. So I'm just concerned that sometimes the public discourse doesn't allow for the details of all the elements to come out. So when people - for various different reasons on sort of both sides of the aisle, there is a political debate. There was an election, and people used some of those elements for arguments in feed - for fodder in the debate.

Well, now that sort of spun a little bit out of control. And it's not what the issues are about. We're trying to manage the system while giving more choice to families.

MARTIN: What's the next step?

Mr. TEDESCO: Well, Mr. Barber noted about we didn't have a plan. Simply not true. Right now, we're in a planning process. The system is in the middle of a three-year assignment plan. This plan was put in place two years ago and -before we were elected, the new board members. That plan is still in effect. Nobody removed who was going to what school based upon that.

And the board adopted two major policies early on the year. One was a community assignment zone plan, a resolution that said we're going to take nine to 15 months with members of the community, representatives from every district and public engagement meetings to draft a new plan. And we were going to do it with larger community zones and clusters of school and choice within that, like it's done in many districts around the country.

We're going to continue our strong magnet programs. And then over that nine to 15 months, we're going to continue to have a transition plan once the new formal model is adopted. So it'll be a multiple-year transition plan.

MARTIN: When do you think that the community will experience the new plan in its totally so that they can judge whether it's better?

Mr. TEDESCO: Well, we're starting a phase - we're working on finishing up this year, and then by next year we'll be phasing it in, again, over multiple years. So the first year, we'd probably have kindergarten, sixth graders and ninth graders begin to make that transition, as it phases into the system. And then that let that just trickle up and out.

MARTIN: John Tedesco's a member of the Wake County school board. He is working on the new redistricting plan, and he was kind enough to join us from North Carolina's agency for public telecommunications. Well, thank you for joining us.

Mr. TEDESCO: Anytime. Thank you.

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