The misguided three-percent solution

By: - October 7, 2009 3:48 pm

Here is what we know after Tuesday's contentious school board election in Wake County. Just over three percent of the county's voters don't like the school system's nationally recognized policy of using economic diversity as one of the criteria in student assignment to maintain healthy schools.

Four seats on the nine member board were up for election. The opponents of the diversity policy, folks from the suburbs who don't seem especially troubled by the prospect of resegregation, won three of the four seats handily and the race for the fourth appears headed for a runoff.

But what does handily mean in an election in which barely ten percent of the eligible voters participate and more than half the county's citizens live in districts in which their representatives were not standing for election?

The Wake County Board of Elections says there are 570,000 registered voters in the county. The four resegregationist candidates received just over 18,000 votes combined, or roughly 3 percent.  That is hardly a sweeping mandate to return to separate and allegedly equal schools, though you'd never know it from the headlines or the proclamations from the winners on Tuesday.

And the candidates who profess to support more focus on poor and minority students while hiding behind the neighborhoods schools mantra may well get their way in the end despite the tiny fraction of the county voters that support them.

The business and education establishment in Wake County and the silent, bizarrely disinterested majority that supports the current policy while taking the schools for granted have two more chances to stave off the push to turn the clock back to before Brown versus the Board of Education.

One is in the almost certain runoff in District 2 between John Tedesco, the candidate of the coalition of resegregationists, angry and vocal parents,  and the school voucher and privatization crowd, and Cathy Truitt, whose says she wants to make changes to the diversity policy, but not abandon it.

Truitt finished just ahead of incumbent Horace Tart, a support of the diversity assignment policy, and has already stated plainly that her opponents plan would resegregate the school system.

A Truitt victory would likely to keep some version of the current student assignment policy in place by a 5 to 4 vote.  A victory by Tedesco would reverse it.

But even if Tedesco wins, there's time for the school system's supporters to get their act together and convince the new board that overturning the diversity policy would have disastrous consequences for thousands of kids and their families and hamper the county's economic development efforts.

Judging by Tuesday's election, it's hard to be optimistic that will happen.  Supporters of the current policy rallied toward the end of the campaign, holding a media event Monday featuring prominent community leaders in business, education, and politics.

But even that was somewhat notable for who wasn't there, the same prominent people who haven't said much publicly to defend the schools.  State Rep. Jennifer Weiss was the only member of the Wake County legislative delegation on hand. 

The business community plays a large role in the Wake Education Partnership but with a few exceptions prominent business leaders haven't said much either.  The civil rights community didn't weigh in. Neither did state education officials. 

Where were Governor Beverly Perdue and Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson? They may have been worried about the political risk in speaking up for diversity, but there's a much greater risk for Wake County and its poor students if the diversity policy is overturned.

The leaders would not have made the difference by themselves, but their participation in a long, louder, and more aggressive campaign might have prompted more of the complacent majority to show up at the polls by reminding them what was at stake.

The school system itself could do a better a job telling its impressive story and acknowledging the work it must do to address its problems. 

When any election comes down to anger and misleading rhetoric versus misplaced confidence and complacency, the results are always the same.

Unless something changes soon, three percent of Wake County voters will have sent thousands of kids to schools that are destined to struggle and undone thirty years of progress.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066