We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Andrew J. Taylor, coauthor, with Toby L. Parcel, of The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments. One of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, Wake County, North Carolina, added more than a quarter million new residents during the first decade of this century, an increase of almost 45 percent. At the same time, partisanship increasingly dominated local politics, including school board races. Against this backdrop, Toby Parcel and Andrew Taylor consider the ways diversity and neighborhood schools have influenced school assignment policies in Wake County, particularly during 2000-2012, when these policies became controversial locally and a topic of national attention.
In the following post, Taylor offers background on the situation in Wake County that led him and Parcel to write their book.
When a new school board majority elected by Wake County, North Carolina, residents in 2009 began to alter the jurisdiction’s long-standing diversity assignment policy, it drew attention from media outlets across the globe. The story conveyed by reporters was that the county—possibly still believed to be a sleepy southern backwater by many—was fractured in two by this decision, with conservative white suburban residents supportive of the change and a coalition of liberal white urbanites and African Americans in vocal opposition. Although Wake’s school board politics are ostensibly nonpartisan, the new majority had ridden into office on a strong Republican tide that existed as a mild swell in the county just fifteen years before. They instituted, according to stylized accounts, a revolution in policy of similar magnitude.
In reality, however, things were much more complicated than that. One of the most important contributions of The End of Consensus is to paint a more nuanced, and of course accurate, picture of what led to one of the most publicized developments in the nation’s school board politics and the state’s public life of recent years.
The Republican-backed board majority was certainly assisted in its election by broad discontent with an assignment policy that was based on racial and, after 2000, socioeconomic diversity, but there were other reasons why the status quo was changed. The old Democratic board was viewed as out-of-touch, insensitive in its efforts to move students between schools in the rapidly growing jurisdiction, and too supportive of year-round education that many parents with children on traditional calendars worried deeply about. Residents were genuinely pulled between the diversity policy and the new board’s efforts to assign students based upon geographical proximity—the so-called “neighborhood schools” model. Many people saw the virtues of both approaches.
The book’s empirical sections demonstrate that other pieces of conventional wisdom were wrong. Newcomers to the state—mainly from the Northeast and Midwest—were not less supportive of diversity than whites who, the argument went, having lived in the South for decades had been part of a momentous effort to desegregate schools. Residents of the affluent western suburbs were not diversity’s most energetic opponents; it was individuals who lived in the county’s southern and eastern small towns. There is also evidence to show that urban whites—particularly those who lived inside Raleigh’s “Beltline”—supported the diversity policy because it effectively bused minority children from their communities. Among African Americans, those with higher incomes tended to support diversity; poorer residents were considerably more ambivalent. A view among those who lived in southeast Raleigh, for example, was that their children should be educated in their neighborhoods and that their schools deserved the kind of resources and teachers enjoyed by suburban kids.
Toby and I came into this project from different political perspectives believing the subject required rigorous social scientific analysis. We leave with a greater appreciation for the ability and industriousness of community leaders and municipal policymakers and a deep admiration for the commitment men and women from all walks of life make to their children’s education.
Andrew J. Taylor is professor of political science at North Carolina State University. His book with coauthor Toby L. Parcel, The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments, is now available.