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Monday, June 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Counties

Some who follow my blog live in Alabama, my birthplace. Others are in North Carolina, where I have lived since 1986.

I attended segregated public schools in Montgomery, Ala. until 1970, when court-ordered integration began with my junior year in high school. After entering a highly competitive university that drew students from across the county, I found that my education in Montgomery was excellent; it was weaker in science compared to schools in other states, but just as strong in math and stronger in English and history.

Since I left Montgomery, the public schools have largely resegregated. Well, it’s more accurate to say that many white residents left the public schools to attend private schools that are, as one might expect, predominantly white. Some of these private schools had existed prior to 1970, albeit much smaller; others were founded subsequent to integration of the public schools. Montgomery public schools are now 80% black, but the population is 50% black. The county population is stagnant, while adjacent counties to the north are growing rapidly; their populations are 80% white.

These patterns in Montgomery are unlikely to change. Political support for Montgomery public schools is limited among the white population, which has largely abandoned the system. Even if there were strong support for public schools from whites, the county’s tax base – which excludes the concentration of Air Force installations and state government offices – has been capped by the rapid growth of adjacent counties. Residents are attracted to those counties by lower tax rates and better schools. At best, the Montgomery public schools will maintain a level of mediocrity. At worst, the system will decay further and fail provide a decent education for the predominantly black student base.

My sons graduated from public schools here in Wake County, a county-wide system. Their education was good overall, but not excellent; the system obviously suffered from inconsistent management both in individual schools and at the headquarters. Of course, Wake County Public Schools accommodated an increase in county population from 300,000 in 1980 to 900,000 in 2009; that’s a herculean task. Wake has become the 20th largest public school system in the nation.

Meanwhile, Wake is undergoing cataclysmic change – different from Montgomery’s, but cataclysmic nonetheless. Raleigh has aggressively used the favorable annexation laws of North Carolina to grow dramatically since 1980, but its growth rate has been slower than the county’s. Raleigh’s limits now bump against the limits of adjacent towns. Consequently Raleigh comprises only 44% of the Wake population, compared to 54% in 1970. Raleigh is 70% white. Outside the limits of Raleigh, the county is 90% white. Most of the recent growth in Wake is more than 10 miles outside the Raleigh limits.

Wake schools, however, remained administered from Raleigh. Student assignment patterns were driven by county-wide targets for diversity. Although “magnet schools” in Raleigh attracted some students to travel long distances voluntarily, there was a lot of mandatory transportation across the county to achieve the diversity targets.

As Wake grew, residents outside Raleigh felt unattached, underserved, and taken for granted by the Raleigh-dominated school system whose competence and judgment they had legitimate reason to question (“Wacky Wednesdays” for those who don’t live here). To complicate matters, many of the people moving into Wake came from areas where school districts are much smaller – California, Texas, New York, and New Jersey where towns run their own school districts. They had no history of cross-county transportation, nor were they diversity-conscious. And who could expect them to be, living in virtually all-white neighborhoods with little visibility into Raleigh and little knowledge of the torturous history of southern public schools in general?

The November 2009 election was a shift in power to school board representatives outside Raleigh. The school board has officially dropped its long-standing policy to ensure diversity at each individual school. As one might imagine, feelings about the current state of Wake schools are boiling over. The Mayor of Holly Springs, a town in far south Wake that grew from 1,000 to 25,000 residents in less than 15 years, denounced the Mayor of Raleigh as out of touch with reality. The Mayor of Raleigh responded that newcomers don’t share Raleigh’s “traditional values” of progressivism, and he threatens to haul the school board into court. The school board has decided to relocate the system’s headquarters to a town outside Raleigh. Every meeting of the school board is picketed by progressives (mostly from Raleigh) and covered extensively by the press. It's high drama, but serious stuff.

The question is, will Raleigh and Wake follow the trajectory of Montgomery? I don’t know, but I hope not. There are demographic differences, economic differences, and political differences between Alabama and North Carolina. What I am certain of, however, is that a collapse of public education in Wake – even if the collapse is limited to the traditional black neighborhoods of Raleigh – is not in the overall interest of the public.