Weekly Briefing

Move “those kids” out of “our” neighborhoods

New clarity on what's really going on in Wake County

Most modern politicians and political activists – even the most ardent of conservatives on the immigrant-baitin', coal company lovin', anti-government right – have media staffers to help them polish the rough edges off of their sound bites and policy positions.

You know this practice: it's what transforms policies promoting the degradation of the environment into the "Healthy Forests Initiative" and policies that encourage the rounding up of peaceful, hardworking immigrants – many of them lawfully present – into something called the "Secure Communities" law. 

In the public education context, the prettified/sanitized phrases are "neighborhood schools" and "school choice." These terms serve in most cases as a proxy for the uglier words "segregated" and "re-segregated."       

As with all such policies, however, there comes a point at which the rubber meets the road – the moment at which the trees get bulldozed, the women and children get arrested in the middle of the night and put behind bars and, in the case, of public education, the moment at which the mostly comfortable suburbanites send the less fortunate kids back to less desirable schools in the central city.

The re-segregation cycle

This latter scenario has been played out all over the country in recent decades as activist conservative ideologues in the federal courts have systematically dismantled the nation's school integration policies. Around the nation, communities are in various stages of the process.

Some are all the way back to where they began with fully segregated and unequal schools. Some are getting well along in the process – places like Charlotte-Mecklenburg – where the system is now reaching the point at which, having largely re-segregated, the suburbanites are starting to get a little less enthusiastic about putting extra resources into schools with lots of poor kids. Some systems never got very far in the direction of integration to begin with.

A few, however, are still in the early stages of the cycle – the point at which the cloak of supposedly pure intentions helps camouflage the down and dirty decisions that lie ahead. This is where Wake County has been for the last 12 months. During this period, the narrow, conservative majority on the county's school board has moved with all deliberate speed to end Wake's remarkably successful socioeconomic integration policy. But, for the most part, they've been able to do so under the guise of having a genuine concern for poor kids. At points, they may have even convinced themselves that this concern was real.

These were the moments when the majority could bemoan the system's failure to close the achievement gap and shed some crocodile tears for the plight of poor kids and families who were "forced" to travel to schools in more affluent neighborhoods away from their homes. These were the moments when the majority could promote vague plans that promised all things to all people and even attempt to justify their actions as somehow being in the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court's original anti-school segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.     

But, as is always the case with such matters, there comes the point at which the conservatives with power have to actually do the dirty deed – the moment at which they "deliver" for the people who put them in office and say "no" to the people who didn't.

That moment seems to have arrived (or gotten awfully darn close to arriving) in North Carolina's capital county.

A critical moment for Wake County

Here's the lead from a story in Raleigh's News & Observer that describes yesterday's meeting of a board student assignment committee:

"RALEIGH — Amid heated words about resegregation, members of a Wake County school board committee proposed today moving thousands of Southeast Raleigh students to schools closer to where they live next year.

Some members of the student assignment committee said the Southeast Raleigh moves are consistent with the new policy adopted in May that eliminates diversity as a factor in assignments while stressing proximity.

‘It's pretty clear that if we're going to be consistent with policy, sending nodes from WakeMed on (U.S.) 64 on the eastern side of Raleigh to Apex is a far cry from proximity,' said school board member John Tedesco."

Later in the story, however, is where the real meat of the proposal is spelled out in plain English:

"Tracey Noble, the community member for board member Deborah Prickett, proposed numerous moves that would send Southeast Raleigh students out of schools in North Raleigh.

David Williams, the community member for Tedesco, proposed moves to send Southeast Raleigh students out of Garner High and East Garner Middle back to their communities.

Ann Rouleau, the community member for board chairman Ron Margiotta, proposed moving Southeast Raleigh students out of schools in western Wake."

Boom, boom, boom, there you have it: In about as plain of terms as can be imagined, the essence of what ultimately lay beneath a year's worth of turmoil and conflict is summarized in three pithy paragraphs. Three suburbanites moving plainly and explicitly to send the poor kids back to where they belong – back to Southeast Raleigh where they will be out of sight and out of mind.

Oh sure, in the event these proposed reassignments actually occur there will be plenty of seemingly earnest words about providing the resources to make sure those kids have "strong neighborhood schools" – what we once called "separate but equal." Plenty of proposals will be voiced and even enacted to "throw more money over the wall" in and an effort to assuage some guilty consciences and provide public relations cover. That's what they've been trying in Charlotte for the last several years.

Ultimately, however, as it does with all political decisions about divvying up public resources, there will come a point at which the "haves" in Wake County will grow weary of sending extra tax dollars "downtown" to the "have nots." One can easily imagine the political debates that will transpire as new waves of suburban transplants with no ties to the Margiotta-Tedesco gang enter the discussion and turn their noses up at the idea of "paying higher taxes so that the County can spend more money per student on kids whose families pay less."  

There can be little doubt about what will happen next. That will be the moment at which Wake County will have come, like so many other communities around the country, full circle – back to a system of fully separate and unequal schools.

And if we're not careful, that will be the point at which the very viability of public education will be called into question – the point at which another key component of our American democracy will have been transformed from a broadly shared, collective enterprise into a commodity that's bought and sold like cell phones and toilet paper.

Let's hope the thinking people of Wake County stand up to stop and reverse this cycle before it's too late.