Toby L. Parcel: Can Neighborhood Schools Also Be Diverse Schools?

parcel_end_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Toby L. Parcel, coauthor, with Andrew J. Taylor, 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, Parcel and 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, Parcel explains that what seem to be competing interests may in fact be common interests in school assignment decision making in a rapidly growing school system.  


Are preferences for neighborhood schools and diverse schools really polar opposites? As Wake County has debated policies of public school assignments over the last several years, many have framed the debate this way. Media coverage often juxtaposes assignment plans that promote diversity in schools and classrooms with others that place more emphasis on children attending schools close to home. Citizen groups have formed on both sides. Races for school board have focused closely on candidate preferences.

In The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments, Andy and I have discovered that despite this very public polarization, many citizens actually favor both diverse and neighborhood schools. Neighborhood schools remain very well ingrained in American life. Possibly this is because that, although private schools have always been an option, the vast majority of adults, including those with children in Wake schools today, attended neighborhood schools growing up in North Carolina or elsewhere. Neighborhood schools also present advantages for children and families, particularly in terms of proximity between home and school. But we have found many of those who value neighborhood schools also strongly support diverse schools, places where children from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds interact and learn together. Can these two preferences be reconciled?

Complicating this picture is the reality that Wake County population has grown quickly but unevenly across the jurisdiction. Combining this with a sluggish system of funding from Wake County itself, school assignment policies became controversial. Just finding space at school for increasing numbers of students became challenging. When this was combined with long-standing and successful student assignment policies supporting diverse schools, conflict became acute.

Much of this conflict was driven by how assignment policies were implemented. Children were increasingly re-assigned from one school to another as population grew in some parts of Wake but declined in others. Opening year-round schools made good use of existing physical resources, but this calendar did not always work for families. Although relatively few children were re-assigned to new schools for diversity purposes, distinguishing such re-assignments from those needed to accommodate population growth was difficult.

Beyond preferences for diversity and neighborhood schools were other sentiments that drove both public conversation and the more private lives of citizens and families. We have found that citizens found assignment policy implementation in Wake County very challenging for parents. It was parents who had to manage the juggling act of balancing work and family; school re-assignments complicated this picture, particularly when children were re-assigned to schools distant from their homes. Wake citizens also worried there were dangers to children’s learning and friendships when they changed schools because of re-assignment. They perceived that policy change created uncertainty for families that persisted for several months each year as reassignments were proposed, debated, and later implemented.

All of these sentiments contributed to change in school board composition beginning in 2009. Republicans replaced Democrats, who then replaced Republicans again over a four-year interval. Although the earlier diversity assignment policy was discarded, subsequent assignment schemes did not and could not follow a narrowly conceived neighborhood schools model. And even though the current board is majority Democratic, it has not relied as heavily on diversity assignment policy as was the case prior to 2009. Board policy now appears to be looking for ways to promote school diversity while also allowing children to attend schools closer to their homes. Policy also appears to be more attuned to reducing parental challenge, relieving worries about the dangers to children from repeated re-assignments, and mitigating the uncertainties surrounding policy implementation. Clearly, managing continued district growth within the context of these concerns is not an easy task, but it is one we are hopeful Wake citizens can address together.

Toby L. Parcel is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. Her book with coauthor Andrew J. Taylor, The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments, is now available.