Wake County, North Carolina, is a place people like to live. People with ideas and energy. Folks from vastly different backgrounds. One of the most educated regions of the country, it boasts an excellent public school system where you can find superb schools in poor neighborhoods, and suburban schools where poor kids learn and play right alongside affluent peers.
But the Tea Party wants to change things in the place where I grew up. The Wake County school board, recently taken over by Tea Party-backed Republicans, has looked upon this much-envied school district and found it wanting. With a vow to defy "social engineers," the new members have thrown out the diversity policy that has allowed tolerance and hope to flourish in Wake County in a manner sadly lacking in other regions of the country. Why? Because, claim the new board members, poor children (often dark-skinned in these parts) are better off isolated in their own schools. John Tedesco, a new board member who hails from northern regions, dismisses the notion that such a plan could hurt minority children: "This is Raleigh in 2010, not Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s - my life is integrated."
Fair enough. But let me tell you what Raleigh was like in the 1980s, at the height of desegregation efforts. It was a place where Ku Klux Klan vitriol was recorded at phone numbers circulated among students at my elementary school. A realm where the N-word was dropped casually on the playground -- and not in a whisper. It was a world where wary looks -- and occasionally violent gestures -- passed between black and white students in the hallways. In this new world, children of different hues felt awkward and unsure of ourselves.
Broughton High School is the oldest in Raleigh, traditionally populated by the well-heeled southern families whose stately homes line the nearby streets. After busing, it became a laboratory were white country club kids and children from black housing projects attended class together. At times you might have thought that the black and white students existed in parallel universes, so little did we wander from our respective social circles. But since we couldn't avoid each other altogether, something else happened. Slowly -- sometimes painfully -- we began to get used to each other. At a party thrown at a rich white kid's house you might have seen one or two black students mingling in the crowd. And at a gathering hosted by black students in a housing project, you might have spotted a couple of whites. Hardly a big post-racial bear hug. But better than the unbreachable divide that preceded busing. It was progress.
At times the busing was hard and inconvenient. But children like me who dealt with people from all walks of life at an early age found ourselves better equipped to meet the demands of 21st-Century America when we grew up. Part of the reason that Wake County is such a great place to live, less marred by the racial tension that plagues other cities, is the long-cherished commitment to diversity that dared to dream that kids from different backgrounds could not only grow to accept one another -- but actually enhance each other's education.
In 2000, Wake County shifted the focus of its integration policy from race to economic status, taking on a new challenge that no school should have more than 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the hallmark of poverty. Farsighted leaders understood that schools with large concentrations of poor children have trouble keeping good teachers, and that the quality of education diminishes -- along with students' dreams of a better future.
Shuffling and reassignments continued to vex students and families with the new policy. I know firsthand what these inconveniences are like, having attended seven different public schools, K-12. My parents didn't like to see me enduring long bus rides. But they knew that there was something happening in their city that was even more important than the inconveniences. A terrible and traumatic divide was slowly healing. And more children were getting a shot at the American Dream.
The David Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity -- the country's largest Tea Party organizers -- has a different way of thinking. The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen reports that when the group threw its support behind conservative school board candidates, it initiated a campaign against "forced busing" and branded the old school board members as dangerous leftists. Terry Stoops of the libertarian John Locke Foundation scoffed at the notion that schools should somehow reflect a city's diversity and dismissed those who wanted to turn them into "some socially acceptable melting pot." School board member Tedesco says he just wants something simpler, a plan in which kids can go to school close to home. If that means some kids end up segregated in high-poverty schools, well, maybe that's a good thing. "If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," he said. "Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it."
You read that correctly. If we just segregate poor kids, we might do a better job of paying attention to them.
One of the most surprising results of the school board takeover has been the rushed appointment of Brigadier General Anthony Tata to the position of superintendent. This professed Tea Party fan, who has stated that Sarah Palin is better suited to lead the country than the current president, will be presiding over a school system whose population comprises one the highest concentrations of PhDs in the country. If the Tea Party can get a foothold here, it can do so anywhere.
Unless we protest and insist that a vital part of education is interacting with people who are not exactly like we are. Unless we remember that we learn to tolerate others by getting out of our narrow worlds. Unless we step up to our obligation to take a long-term view of how our schools are organized, recognizing the benefits of diversity and the danger of consigning students to homogeneous pockets of poverty -- or privilege.
Plans like those of the new Wake County school board have no place in our interconnected 21st-century world. The 20th century taught us that improvements to long-term social ills occur gradually and incrementally. But the 21st century is teaching us that it doesn't take nearly as long to turn once-tolerant communities into breeding grounds for hatred and mistrust.
Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.