By Cash Michaels
When citizens stepped forward Tuesday evening during the Wake School Board’s public comment period, many of them made it clear that they weren’t buying the recent numbers the Republican majority have been trying to sell “proving” that poor black and other disadvantaged students were more hurt than helped by the previous socioeconomic diversity (SES) policy, just because they were “forced” to take 10-mile or more long bus rides to school.
“I am personally distressed by the intellectual dishonesty shown by this board majority by releasing purposely misleading data to support its bad policies,” Rita Anita Linger, who works in Southeast Raleigh, told the board.
Other speakers also accused the board majority of “lying” with statistics.
But the question isn’t whether a politically divided public believes the board’s contention or not, but rather if investigators with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which is investigating the Wake School Board, do.
Especially when, after over forty years of school busing for desegregation across the nation, South and North Carolina, there are no credible independent studies proving the board majority’s point.
Nothing that confirms, beyond conservative board members own “feelings,” and the dubious statistics school system staff was directed to produce, that undeniably details how academically debilitating a school bus ride from Southeast Raleigh to Cary can be.
“I know of no research linking bus lengths and academic achievement,” Richard Kahlenburg, senior fellow and SES advocate at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., told The Carolinian last week after he was forwarded a copy of the Wake School Board’s March 22 46-page response to the US Dept. of Education’s probe into the NC NAACP’s federal racial bias complaint.
In that response, not only did the conservative board majority deny any racial animus in its move from the school system’s previous student diversity policy to the neighborhood schools policy it has adopted, but it also boldly proclaimed that, “…the use of SES in student assignment was an ineffective tool to meeting the educational needs of students and that students would benefit more from improving educational opportunities in the schools within their own communities.”
Translation - poor black and Hispanic children can learn better by attending school in their own high poverty neighborhoods.
But when OCR - which is tasked to ensure that all agencies receiving federal dollars abide by the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 - goes over the Wake School Board’s defensive response with a fine tooth comb, despite the lengthy legalese the board’s attorneys contrived, it will find many other areas where the board maintains it has done nothing wrong, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
OCR may also want to check the public record on Wake Public Schools against the school system’s negative portrayal in the board majority’s response. Throughout that document, reference is made to black student achievement since 2007, when there was a definite decline because of the system’s struggles with tremendous growth.
But the board’s response interestingly omits the steady growth of black and Hispanic student achievement in Wake Public Schools between 2000-2005 which reached 81 percent at or above grade level. It was during that time that the school system’s SES was making national headlines in the NY Times and Forbes Magazine for academic achievement.
In the board’s OCR “Factual Background” version of Wake’s achievement history of that period, there is no reporting of the school system’s 91.5 percent overall student achievement accomplishment or number one status above 114 other North Carolina school districts. Only that Wake “received positive attention in the media and some prominent national figures for its past student assignment practices…”
Clearly, it would be hard for OCR to believe that black and economically disadvantaged students have been always hurt by SES, if it were also told that before growth and lack of resources impeded the system’s progress, those students were, in fact, achieving and graduating at impressive numbers for several years.
The board’s OCR response maintains that “None of the board’s (majority) decisions was made with discriminatory intent.”
But just last December The Carolinian exclusively reported how Republican board members schemed to have thousands of mostly black students reassigned out of the upper-middle class, predominately white schools they were attending in the county, and back to Southeast Raleigh neighborhood schools, without allowing the parents of those students to weigh in.
The scheme, approved by Board Chairman Ron Margiotta and executed by his board lieutenant John Tedesco, was so obvious, fellow Republican Debra Goldman, board vice chair, exposed it, and then joined the board’s four Democrats in voting against it.
The board majority also maintains to OCR that there is “overwhelming evidence that neither the board nor any of its members was motivated by racial animus in considering and deciding any student assignment issues.”
But when OCR investigators come back to interview board members next month, they may ask John Tedesco why he saw fit last year to angrily criticize the NC NAACP and other black leaders in a letter where he inferred he knew better what was best for the education of black children because he had had numerous “black girlfriends.”
Why an elected school board member felt the need to boast about how his past inter-racial dating history enhances his sworn educational duties, is a question that OCR will no doubt ask.
While the board, in its response, alleges that a majority of the public, and especially parents, did not approve of the prior SES system, it interestingly omits the results of its own 2010 informal survey of system parents that showed that 94 percent were happy with their children’s school and the way things were operating under SES.
And despite the board’s relentless portrayal of poor black students continuing to fail at disturbing rates throughout the system because they’re not attending neighborhood schools, charts that are still posted in the school system’s own boardroom as of this week clearly show that the academic achievement gap between black and white students in Wake County has actually and significantly been narrowing for at least the past two years.
Corresponding news reports in both The Carolinian and The News & Observer from July 2009 and July 2010 confirm that black students in both years have made incremental gains in their state end-of-grade test scores. The gains were attributed not only to allowing students to take the tests twice in a 48-hour period (the results of which are officially counted), but also to recommended strategies from the curriculum management audit Wake Public Schools employed in 2007 under SES when black student scores dropped.
And yet, the board majority, according to the scathing AdvancED accreditation review report (which OCR has also undoubtedly seen), has refused to acknowledge this evidence of academic growth nailed to the wall of their own board room, instead depending on their own “facts and figures” derived independent of the school system’s staff.
Observers are also quick to note how, in making “minor” changes to the third year of the prior school board’s three-year SES student assignment plan, the board majority created a $25 million super high poverty elementary school in Southeast Raleigh with a projected 81 percent free-and-reduced lunch student population, 52 percent of whom are classified as “low achievers.”
Democratic school board members say that didn’t have to happen, and there is real doubt beyond its first year after Walnut Creek Elementary opens this August, that the school system will have the requisite funding and resources to fully support what it has created come year two and beyond.
Especially when just over a year ago, the board majority voted down a request to begin fiscally planning for the numerous high poverty schools its neighborhood schools policy could create.
Per the recent AdvancED report, beyond depending on the federal Renaissance program funding for next budget year for four additional high poverty schools currently on line, none of the board’s Republicans could offer a plan as to how to fund the system’s high poverty schools beyond that.
There are other areas in the Wake School Board majority’s OCR response that raises questions, if not eyebrows, as to how they reinterpret events. In the final analysis, has this board operated in a manner that has been detrimental to the education of the system’s poor black and economically disadvantaged children?
OCR will have to decide.