Wake County Schools and the Search for a “Sound Basic Education”
In September of 2010, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) was served with a complaint filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The complaint responded to a change in WCPSS’ student assignment plan, and was not a surprise. Many felt the new plan was a return to segregation in schools. The previous assignment plan provided that students in Wake County were to be assigned to schools in such a way as to achieve socioeconomic diversity. The plan made assignments so that no school had more than forty percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Because studies have shown that schools in low-income areas tend to be less effective than those in high-income areas, students were often bussed to schools, some up to 45 minutes away. The previous plan ensured that a student’s education and future were not dictated simply by geography.
In 2009, things changed. A newly elected Wake County School Board decided to create a new student assignment plan. Rather than planning assignments with an eye towards achieving socioeconomic diversity, students would go to schools in or near their neighborhood. In short, the new plan would be “community-based.”
The NAACP complaint was filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI). The complaint alleged that Wake County, by abandoning its voluntary assignment plan, was destroying racial and socioeconomic diversity because the “community-based” model ensured that races stayed separate. Because the Supreme Court has found no private cause of action under Title VI (Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001)), the national and state branches of the NAACP joined together with a local youth organization and a public high school senior to bring suit against the Wake County Board of Education and the WCPSS. Title VI allows for two separate causes of action, one for intentional discrimination and the other for discriminatory effects. The plaintiffs brought suit under both.
In response to the complaint, the WCPSS responded that the pre-2009 plan failed to close the achievement gap between white and minority students and that it placed “unfair burdens” on minority students, that they were often subjected to “disproportionately long bus rides.” Additionally, when minority students lived so far away from their school, there was little chance for parental involvement. WCPSS denied the allegations of intentional discrimination, as well as any discriminatory effects of the new plan.
Since the election and change in 2009, the Wake County School Board has proposed three plans. The first proposed assignment plan for the 2010-2011 school year, discussed above, gave students an assigned “base school” according to a student’s address. After that plan was met with a lawsuit and public outcry, a “choice plan” was proposed, which would enable students to choose between a community-based model and a base school model.
Although Wake County School Board made efforts to change and tweak school assignment plans, the NAACP was not ready to give up its fight. In June of 2012, the NAACP filed a supplement to its 2010 complaint, with a heading that reads: “Disturbing New Evidence of Race-Based, Poverty-Based Policies and Practices by Wake County Board of Education.” The supplement argued that at the beginning of this school year, the choice-based assignment plan would cause poor schools to become even poorer. The data, based primarily on percentages of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches, was important to at least some members of the Wake County School Board. Board chair Kevin Hill commented on the findings. “I can’t speak for the board as to what we will do if anything for August,” Hill said, “But I feel certain that having this information will be important as we look at what to do with assignment for 2013-14 and beyond.”
The Wake County School Board did go back to the drawing boards. Last month, a hybrid plan was proposed for the 2013-2014 school year. This latest plan combines the prior two plans. Students will be assigned an elementary, middle, and high school, and levels of student achievement will be considered. If a student is not currently attending his or her newly-assigned school, that student has the option to stay at his or her current school.
As the Wake County School Board moves forward to discuss how to implement the 2013-2014 hybrid plan, it will do so without the leadership of former superintendent Tony Tata, who was fired on September 25, 2012 in a 5-4 vote by the board. The acting superintendent, Stephen Gainey, told reporters he was committed to helping Wake County move forward. “Let’s get our focus there. We have 150,000 students coming to school every day,” Gainey said, “Everybody’s mission is those students, so let’s get our focus back there. And that’s how we can start moving.”
The issue of education is a big part of the upcoming presidential election, and education is on the minds of many North Carolinians. As the Wake County School Board continues to fight legal battles, appease parents, and provide an education for its students, it would be wise to remember a “sound basic education” is a fundamental right under our state’s constitution, and North Carolina is committed to creating “a public school system that graduates good citizens with the skills demanded in the marketplace, and the skills necessary to cope with contemporary society.” Leandro, 346 N.C. at 347. However, the old saying has proved true: it’s easier said than done.