Open Letter to the Community
The new and narrow majority of the Wake County School Board has made at least five tragic decisions already that should greatly concern all North Carolinians.
The first tragedy was the group's refusal, as it voted to end the socioeconomic diversity policy, to include a simple pledge in its plan that would guarantee every child a sound basic education. This has been the guarantee of our state's Constitution for nearly a century and a half. It was included in our Constitution in 1868, when black and white "fusionists" were working together to try to create a just society beyond racial divisions.
When the Constitution was being considered in 1868, a white Congregationalist minister, Rev. Samuel Ashley, who became the first State Superintendent of Education, moved to add a sentence to the fundamental rights section of the Constitution: "The people have a right to the privileges of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right."
During the debate over that provision, a black minister of the AME Zion Church, Rev. J. W. Hood, who later became the first Assistant Superintendent of Education, eloquently challenged opponents of Ashley's motion: "I am opposed to putting separate schools in the organic law. Make this distinction in your organic law and in many places the white children will have good schools at the expense of the whole people, while the colored people will have none better or what will be but little than none."
In 1868, only three years beyond the shadow of slavery, North Carolina moved forward to guarantee a sound basic education for all students, regardless of color. In 2010, 142 years later, however, the new 5-4 majority wants to move backwards.
The second tragic action of this narrow majority has been its devious attempt to portray itself as a friend of civil rights. On March 3, 2010, Board member John Tedesco told a local television station: "It's time that we end discrimination in Wake County based on income and that we help all of our poor kids."
This is slick and disingenuous packaging. To argue that ending the school system's socio-economic diversity plan is comparable to efforts of courageous civil rights leaders to end racial and economic discrimination is historical heresy. To attempt to characterize socio-economic diversity policies as a cause of discrimination, rather than as what they are – an effort to remedy racially identifiable and high poverty schools – is to engage in tragically flawed if not consciously deceptive thinking.
The third tragedy has been the new majority's utter disregard for efficiency and cost-effectiveness. In this era of recession and deep public spending cuts, the last thing Wake County can afford to do is to discard a proven tool for making full and effective use of all of its facilities. By moving, in effect, to a "rich zone, poor zone" assignment policy, this is precisely what the new Board is doing. The school budget already has a 20 million dollar deficit. This neo-resegregation scheme will be expensive. Who's going to pay for new schools? Trailers? If 99% of the children currently go to a school within 10 miles of their homes, who will provide the money to build more schools so that the board can provide essentially private schools with public dollars for certain privileged communities?
Tragic decision Number 4 was to shove Superintendent Dr. Del Burns out of office. In effect, the new narrow majority of the Board forced out a skilled and veteran leader simply because he could not, in good conscience, help them re-segregate Wake's nationally acclaimed school system; because he could not end a diversity program which educational experts almost unanimously agree is an essential component of building excellent schools. The new narrow majority's actions forced Burns forced out because he could not stand by as they casually discarded the efforts of leaders and pioneers like former Superintendent Bill McNeal, the Campbell family, the Cofield family, the Lightner Family and thousands of others who sacrificed so much to breathe life into our Constitution's guarantee of equal and adequate education for all.
Finally, the group's fifth tragic decision was, despite repeated requests, its refusal to hear anything more than a sound bite from the NAACP State Conference and its three Wake County NAACP Branches. The NAACP, which has decades of experience in this critical debate, asked for a mere 45 public minutes to deliver a historically-grounded, data-based presentation – a presentation that would have shown how diversity is a critical component, especially in the South, of insuring equity in funding, high quality teachers, smaller class rooms, a focus on math and science, parental involvement, and eliminating inequities in suspensions, graduation, performance and many other factors, which are necessary to achieve school excellence and student achievement. Sadly, the board stuffed its fingers in its ears.
Yes, there is a tragedy unfolding in Wake County. And it represents a clear call to our community-Black, White, Latino, Asian-to employ all the moral, political, and legal means at our disposal to stop it before it's too late. Now is the time for us to stand together.
Rev. Dr. Barber is the President of the State Conference of the North Carolina NAACP and member of National Board.