RALEIGH, N.C. — The nation's top education official on Friday joined a chorus of criticism targeting a decision last year by North Carolina's largest school district to end its busing for diversity program.
"America's strength has always been a function of its diversity, so it is troubling to see North Carolina's Wake County school board take steps to reverse a long-standing policy to promote racial diversity in its schools," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote in a letter to The Washington Post that was also provided to The Associated Press.
The federal education agency's Office for Civil Rights is investigating the board's decision, following a complaint filed with the department last year by the state chapter of the NAACP and other groups.
They allege that ending a policy in which some of the district's 140,000 or so students were bused to achieve socio-economic balance in the school district amounts to a rollback of civil rights-era changes that integrated the schools.
Duncan's three-paragraph letter didn't necessarily endorse that position, but it did urge other school boards to think twice before using Wake County's new policy as a model.
"I respectfully urge school boards across America to fully consider the consequences before taking such action," Duncan wrote. "This is no time to go backward."
John Tedesco, one of the Wake County board members who voted to end the policy in favor of allowing students to attend schools as close as possible to their homes, said he was disappointed by Duncan's letter.
Tedesco said he supports many of Duncan's ideas about improving public schools, and that he would have liked to speak with the federal education chief before Duncan went public with his criticism.
"If he actually saw the details of what's going on in Wake County, or had the opportunity to speak to some of the leaders in Wake County, I think he might have had a different tone, and maybe even been more receptive to the message," Tedesco said.
Last year's vote to end the decade-old busing for diversity policy began a round of protests, investigations, and bickering among board members that shows little sign of slowing. Most recently, the board became embroiled in a dispute with AdvancED, a national accreditation agency that's investigating changes in the school system, including how the board reached its decision to scrap the diversity policy. Board members say the agency is overstepping its bounds.
Duncan's letter is the latest sign that Wake's once-stellar reputation for schools has become tarnished, according to Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a citizens' group that has opposed many of the changes sought by the board.
"It's kind of a sad moment," she said. "A school system that used to get press for having the national superintendent of the year and being a stronghold for best practices is now getting written up for dismantling policies that maintained diversity in our school system."