Where there were no bad schools

Well, this is disappointing. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I went to integrated public schools in a Southern inner city — especially since moving up north and seeing the damage that de-facto school segregation wreaks upon city and suburbs alike. What seemed normal as a kid was, as it turned out in my social-policy classes, a national model of how to do the right thing.

The magnet-school system in Raleigh not only provided remarkable education opportunities (my high school offered three orchestral programs, multivariate calculus, and Latin), but left me with enough street smarts to easily and respectfully navigate multiethnic city life. Getting bused across town for school also, in a way, taught me about educational opportunities across the entire city — museums, other libraries, the university. Although half of my peers lived in the lower-income, mostly African American neighborhoods of southeast Raleigh, nearly 90% of us went on to college. All this despite spending some 30% less per student than failing urban schools in the North.

The school system’s strong commitment to integration — suburban and city schools merged long after the courts had shifted away from forced busing — means that there are no bad schools, no schools worth fleeing or closing or “reconstituting,” in a county just shy of one million residents. Indeed, in Raleigh it’s the city schools which are better. This fact arguably played a huge role in making Raleigh one of the best-educated, most prosperous, fastest-growing cities in America:

For comparison’s sake, imagine that instead of merging in 1976, the Raleigh and Wake school systems had continued to be separate. And not only that, but Raleigh was one school district and every other town in Wake County had a separate school district of its own, like Wayne County [suburban Detroit]. Would Raleigh today be affluent? Or would the affluent people of Raleigh have long since moved to Cary, Apex and the rest of the suburbs, leaving a poor inner-city school system behind? [Bob Geary, Independent Weekly, writing about Gerald Grant’s new book Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh]

And yet there are others who inexplicably see such policies as failures, who insist that geography should be destiny. A small minority, likely drawn to Raleigh by its reputation for great schools, has consistently railed about the constant churn of school reassignments — necessary for a district that opens several costly new schools every single year. Maintaining integration has become more difficult as sprawl marched farther afield and as patterns of socioeconomic segregation ossified. (In this regard, the spread of suburban poverty and inner-city gentrification have actually helped to maintain some integration.) The usual right-wing hue and cry over “socialist social engineering” (never mind the right’s continual insistence on deeply interfering with private lives) becomes double-speak for perpetuating segregation. One school board member wants to have his cake and eat it, too — disband the magnets and somehow offer their programs at every single school, while decrying the “high cost” of busing. (Is there demand for AP Latin at every school? Even if there were, who could afford it?) Yet busing costs much less than trying to rescue failed schools with vast infusions of cash.

I’m only writing about this since, of course, the fringe has won a crucial battle: apparent control over the Wake County school board. NC Policy Watch argues that only 3% of voters — just over half, largely in the suburbs, in a poorly attended election — have come to dominate the debate, and that the considerable achievements should be better marketed; “the school system itself could do a better a job telling its impressive story and acknowledging the work it must do to address its problems.” I can only hope from afar that Wake County doesn’t turn its back on one of its few progressive policy achievements.

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