Toby L. Parcel: Exploring Attitudes toward Public School Desegregation Over Time

parcel_end_PBWe welcome to the blog 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 a previous post, Parcel sees common—rather than competing—interests in some school assignment decision making. In today’s post, Parcel discusses new research exploring ongoing attitudes toward public school desegregation in several southern cities.


Why have some school districts sustained school desegregation over many years while others have resegregated by race and income? Can we tie these differing histories to the attitudes and values of residents in these areas? Have attitudes and values in Wake County, North Carolina, regarding school desegregation changed over the last few years?

These are some of the questions I am investigating following the 2015 publication of my book with Andy Taylor, The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments. In that work Andy and I reported the results of a mixed-methods study that used interviews, focus groups, archival data, case studies, and a 2011 representative survey of Wake County adults to understand school assignment policy change in the county. We wondered why in 2009—after many years of successful, voluntary school desegregation—had Wake citizens elected a school board committed to returning the county to neighborhood schools? Indeed, upon election, the new board discarded the student assignment policy based in part on promoting economically diverse schools, although they did not get very far in their quest to return most students to attending schools close to home.

We found several answers explaining the school board election and subsequent policy change. First, Wake County had experienced rapid population growth, making it very difficult to keep up with the influx of school-aged children. In turn, this growth prompted longer bus rides, and at times essentially mandatory attendance at year-round schools, both of which many parents resisted. In addition, the board increased student reassignments both to promote diversity and fill new schools the county was able to build. These were controversial. Second, the Republican Party was growing stronger in Wake, its members less committed to diversity and more invested in neighborhood schools than other residents. Third, citizens were worried that reassignments threatened both children’s learning and their school friendships. They believed reassignments were challenging for parents and children, and they worried about the sometimes unclear process the school board used to decide which children would be reassigned and when.

In writing this book, we also seriously engaged with another key question: was Wake unique? What was going on in other large districts, both in the South and elsewhere? Were they resegregating, and, if so, why? To address this, Andy I reported the results of studying both archival data and case studies of many school districts, large and small. We concluded that Wake was the largest school district in the country that had sustained school desegregation over many years, the recent debates and changes from 2009-2015 notwithstanding.

But I wanted to go further. To do so, I teamed up with Dr. Roslyn Mickelson from UNC–Charlotte and Dr. Stephen Samuel Smith from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Roz has studied school desegregation and resegregation in Charlotte for many years. Steve has studied both Charlotte and Rock Hill in terms of school desegregation and economic change. We decided to pool our expertise and replicate the 2011 survey of Wake to see if anything had changed, but also survey adults in Charlotte; Rock Hill; Louisville, Kentucky; and Nashville, Tennessee. We chose these areas because they had varying histories regarding school desegregation. Like Wake, Louisville had sustained school desegregation peacefully for many years. Rock Hill, while much smaller, had, as well. In contrast, Nashville’s desegregation history had been more contentious. And Charlotte, although similar to Wake in some ways, began resegregating in the early 1990s, a time when Wake was still pursing school desegregation and seeing learning gains among all Wake children.

We have been awarded three linked grants from the National Science Foundation, all under the title “School Segregation and Resegregation: Using Case Studies and Public Polls to Understand Citizen Attitudes.” These funds support our fielding five surveys, one in each of the cities noted above. We expect to have over 5000 respondents answering questions about diversity, neighborhood schools, issues of student reassignment, views of charter and magnet schools, as well as many background characteristics. By comparing the 2011 Wake survey results with those generated in Wake today, we will be able to chart trends in attitudes towards diversity and neighborhood schools in the county. Are Wake citizens more or less in favor of diversity now than they were earlier? Are they more or less worried about the dangers of reassignments, and have they become more or less supportive of the Wake County school board?

A key issue for us is whether these same factors vary by locale. Will we find that support for school diversity is weaker in Nashville than in Wake County or Louisville? Will we find that Charlotte is more like Wake or more like Nashville? And the factors that were so critical for Wake in 2011—concern for diversity, for neighborhood schools, and worries about the dangers, challenges and uncertainties surrounding reassignments—will these be the same in 2015? And will these be the same for all locales? Or will there be new concerns, possibly in some, if not all, areas we study?

We also need to know more about what explains these values. The End of Consensus shows that women worry more about dangers, challenges, and uncertainties than do men. African Americans are more supportive of diversity than are whites, although lower-income African Americans think diverse schools may not be worth the costs. Will these findings replicate across school districts? Roz, Steve, and I look forward to sharing the results of our surveys with researchers, policymakers, and citizens in the years ahead.

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.