Inching Towards Re-Segregation and Poverty Concentration in Wake Schools
By Walter C. Farrell, Jr.*
The Wake County’s Public School System is the latest urban district targeted for dismantling and privatization, an initiative begun under the administration of Ronald Reagan when tuition tax credits were proposed as a solution to the challenges of urban education.
Since 1990, I have followed educational reform initiatives across the country, having served ten years as the senior education and economic policy advisor to the Chair of the Joint Finance Committee in the Wisconsin Legislature (while on half-time leave as a professor of educational policy from UW-Milwaukee) when the nation’s first voucher bill was passed into law. In 1989, I had the opportunity to serve on a Milwaukee Public Schools Community Advisory Committee that was formed to work with Harvard African American Education Professor, Charles Willie, and his former graduate student, Michael Alves, who were brought to Milwaukee to develop a desegregation plan based on the success of their controlled-choice model in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As in Wake County, a comprehensive and balanced desegregation plan was developed, but it was scuttled by the Milwaukee Public School Board, and the business community who had put the Board majority in office. They had decided to pursue remedies that leaned toward privatization. Since that time, an already troubled school system has experienced a widening in the achievement gap and an increase in poverty concentration as well as losing a third of its students to voucher, charter, and partnership schools that have siphoned billions of dollars from public education (without performing better than public schools, and most often worse, they replaced).
It is unlikely that Board Chair Ron Margiotta will direct additional resources to Wake’s emerging concentrated poverty schools based on his past service on the Ridgefield Park, New Jersey School Board.
In 1998, as a result of a New Jersey Supreme Court Order, New Jersey’s 31 majority African American and Latino, high poverty districts were allocated additional funding based on a historical pattern of inequity. Beginning immediately, Ridgefield Park and other New Jersey suburban school boards aggressively lobbied against this increase in financial support for their poor counterparts, alleging that it was unfair (data gathered during my visits to the former New Jersey residential areas of Margiotta and John Tedesco).
The school boards ultimately succeeded in having the New Jersey Legislature pass a new school finance act, which in effect cancelled the subsidy. Thus, it is doubtful that Chairman Margiotta will increase funding for the escalating number of high poverty schools that his repeal of the socioeconomic diversity policy is creating.
The Wake County Public School System is the latest urban district enveloped in controversy over educational reform. Although the debate has focused on the elimination of Wake’s socioeconomic diversity policy, the real objective is the dismantling of public education as we know it. This will be achieved via the removal of the cap on charter schools and the establishment of publicly-funded vouchers that can be used at private and religious schools--legislation introduced by newly chosen North Carolina Assembly Majority Leader, Paul Stam (R-37th District, Wake County).
This is the publicly stated plan of local, multi-millionaire businessmen, Art Pope and Bob Luddy, who are largely responsible for the election of the Wake School Board majority and of Republican majorities in both houses of the North Carolina Legislature. Mr. Luddy, who owns private and charter schools (one of whose boards on which Wake School Board Chairman, Ron Margiotta, formerly served) stands to personally benefit from the legislation championed by Rep. Stam.
Pope and Luddy are aided in their quest by the billionaire Wichita industrialists, Charles and David Koch, who also fund candidates in school board, city council, county commission, state legislative and federal races throughout the nation to advance their privatization and anti-union agenda. (They funded the recent attacks on collective bargaining and public education in Wisconsin.)
A casual review of campaign finance reports for the Wake County School Board and the NC Legislative Republican majorities reveals significant contributions from Luddy, Pope, Koch brothers-controlled political action committees, and their corporate, pro-privatization of public education allies throughout the nation. Moreover, this privatization strategy has been discussed and developed at the Koch brothers’ bi-annual policy retreats held in Palm Springs, California for more than a decade.
They have been attended by Pope, Luddy, and other wealthy businesspersons, including Eli Broad, who was influential in the hiring of Anthony Tata (who graduated from the Eli Broad Superintendent’s Academy) as Superintendent of the Wake County Schools (and earlier as the Chief Operating Officer of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools). This is the same Eli Broad who is providing one year’s salary for Tata’s assistant for curriculum matters, who will likely have significant input into Tata’s school plans.
A broad cross-section of Wake County residents has shown strong support for the Wake Public Schools, in general, and the diversity policy, in particular. But what has been most impressive is the steadfast support of the broader business community that recognizes the key role of the public schools in Wake County’s future prosperity and social stability.
As a graduate of the segregated Raleigh City Schools, I watched from afar as Wake County peacefully implemented a nationally recognized socioeconomic diversity policy that kept its school system from lapsing back into the segregated schools of my youth.
Wake Schools are some of the most successful in the nation and have managed to successfully integrate poor and middle-class children into effective public schools. To sustain this accomplishment, future educational decisions will need to be made at the ballot box with a significant voter turnout (much larger than the 10% who participated in the last school board election) from those who support public education.
*Walter C. Farrell, Jr. is professor of social work at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Fellow of the National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This essay is a summary of his research presentations at the Great Lakes Education Reform Conference in Novi, MI on March ,7 2011 and at the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark on March 12, 2011