Have Tea Party conservatives made their first major statement on how public schools should operate? The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen suggests they have. She takes us to North Carolina's Wake County, where a "majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives" abolished long-standing policies designed to promote school integration, which the majority criticized as social engineering.

Some background is helpful: In the 1970s, officials in Raleigh--North Carolina's state capital--knit the city and its suburbs together into one vast Wake Country School District so that children in poor neighborhoods with large minority populations wouldn't be forced to attend "high-poverty, racially isolated schools." In 2000, McCrummen explains, the school board shifted from racial to economic integration, stipulating that schools couldn't have more than 40 percent of their students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The district also established magnet programs in poor areas to attract middle-class children. Most students attended school within five miles of home, with fewer than 10 percent getting bused to school to maintain diversity.

Now, the district is pivoting to a more conventional system in which students attend neighborhood schools and diversity is not considered in the student assignment process. Meanwhile, the NAACP has filed a civil rights complaint arguing that the new policy has increased racial segregation.

The debate in Wake County, McCrummen explains, revolves around a pivotal question: should school districts be promoting racial and socioeconomic integration? Some say it's "no longer ... necessary," and that integrated schools even "dilute" problems that would otherwise be addressed. Meanwhile, critics are disturbed by integration being abandoned "in one of the last places to promote it," historically.

Opinions on the topic abound, including some from people who attended school in the county:

  • This Is Ridiculous, states The American Prospect's Jamelle Bouie:

High-poverty schools ... are situated in environments which--typically--include high unemployment, low parental engagement, and high crime rates (as well as closer ties to criminal networks). They have a hard time recruiting good teachers and administrators, and their students score far lower than their peers in higher-income schools, from everything to reading and math to music and art. These schools have lower graduation rates and lower rates of college attendance for their graduates.

Conservative school board members might support extra funding for the schools that inevitably revert to concentrated poverty, but the fact is that additional funding does little to ameliorate the problems that come with high-poverty schools. If these conservatives really cared about poor students, they would support the consensus that has benefited Raleigh schools for more than a decade.

  • Remember This?  "The idea," charges Richard Kahlenberg at Taking Note, "that low-income students will do better if concentrated in certain schools has disturbing echoes of the pre-Brown v. Board of Education argument that Negro children would do better with their own kind."
  • School Board Is Not Racist, declares Ken Shepherd at NewsBusters. The "school board is simply moving to reverse decades of busing that shuttled some students to schools farther away from their homes in an effort to artificially engineer the socioeconomic and racial diversity of the county's individual schools." He also complains that "[The Post's] McCrummen waited until the 19th paragraph in the article to note that the 'diversity' plan has had little success in sewing up the 'stubborn achievement gap that separates minority students from their white peers.'"
  • Benefits I Gained As Wake County Student Will Be Lost, claims Lynn Parramour--who went to school in the county--at The Huffington Post:

At times the busing was hard and inconvenient. But children like me who dealt with people from all walks of life at an early age found ourselves better equipped to meet the demands of 21st-Century America when we grew up. Part of the reason that Wake County is such a great place to live, less marred by the racial tension that plagues other cities, is the long-cherished commitment to diversity that dared to dream that kids from different backgrounds could not only grow to accept one another--but actually enhance each other's education.

  • Tea-Partiers Are Short-Sighted, maintains The Economist's Ryan Avent, who also attended Wake County's schools:

Tea Partiers could maintain intellectual consistency by calling for, in addition to an end to bussing, an end to public schools, public funding of social services, and a public police force. This they generally opt not to do, presumably because such a platform would be wildly unpopular. But the result seems to be a policy position that's penny libertarian, pound foolish. The limited benefits of increased liberty and public spending associated with reduced bussing will be entirely offset, and then some, by an increased infringement on liberty from the higher taxes necessary to undertake later efforts at remediation for students failed by the public school system.

  • We Have to Consider What's Best for Students, argues Wake County's new superintendent Tony Tata, who previously served as the chief operating officer for Washington, D.C.'s public schools: "If what we're trying to do is create a diverse environment and we're not concerned about their student achievement, then that's not something I'm interested in."