Fitzsimon File

What Wake County schools don’ t need

Another school year started this week in many parts of North Carolina. The bright yellow school buses are back in our neighborhoods, the first-grade students are staggering up the sidewalks with backpacks as big as they are, and the Friday night football games have kicked off.  

The new school year has also brought the predictable attacks on public education from the folks who want to dismantle traditional public schools and turn them over to their holy free market with vouchers and tax credits for private education.

The attacks against Wake County Schools are especially zealous, led by well-funded groups who claim they are simply for neighborhood schools and fight furiously against Wake County’s policy of using economic diversity as one criterion for student assignment.

Allison Backhouse, one of the leaders of the Wake Community School Alliance, wrote a column for the News & Observer Wednesday headlined “The changes Wake schools need.”

Backhouse makes the usual arguments about the alleged horrors of school reassignment in Wake County, leaving out the facts that contradict her allegations and distorting others to make them support her view.

Backhouse complains about the reassignment of 24,000 students in Wake County over the next three years without mentioning that roughly half the students are being sent to different schools because of the county’s growth and the ten schools that will open to handle it.

That means that just three percent of students in Wake County will be assigned next year because of the widely-praised economic diversity policy that has brought the school system national recognition.

The school system released a study earlier this year showing that 86 percent of Wake County students attend a school within five miles of their homes, 99 percent within ten miles.

Backhouse ridicules that fact too because the study measured the distance “as the crow flies,” not how far a bus has to travel, though in many cases it’s not much further for the bus than for the crow.

And maybe most ridiculously, she blasts the performance of Wake County schools, claiming that the schools test scores have declined relative to the state average in the last eight years.

Backhouse’s rant comes the same day that the latest SAT scores were released. The scores of Wake County students increased by 20 points and remain well above the state and national averages, including almost 100 points ahead of students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system that abandoned its diversity efforts seven years ago.

Many of the critics of the Wake County system like to point to Charlotte as an example of what happens when children attend the schools closest to their homes, regardless of the lack of racial or economic diversity.  

But they are pointing in the wrong direction. Wake County is doing better than Mecklenburg on almost every measurement, teacher turnover, graduation rates, SAT scores, and it spends $35 million less to educate more students.  

Backhouse also forgets to cite the large body of research that shows poor students perform better in economically diverse classrooms, ideally ones with no more than 40 percent poor kids. Middle class students do at least as well in the diverse classes, and many do much better.

The success of the Wake County Schools was documented in a recent book by Gerald Grant comparing the system to the schools in Syracuse, New York. The subtitle of the book is “Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.”

Grant’s conclusion is that Wake County’s commitment to economic diversity has a lot to do with it, and national experts and educators and families in Wake County agree that the policy helps all the students and the community.

And that’s what drives the critics mad, that their arguments don’t add up and that the people in Wake County are proud of their school system and don’t want to see it dismantled and returned to separate and unequal.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges for Wake County school officials. But “the changes Wake schools need” are more parents working to address the real problems and spending less energy distorting the facts and trying to send the schools and the community back fifty years.