Battle Over N.C. Busing Heats Up

In a scene reminiscent of the 1960s, thousands took to the streets in Raleigh this week, accusing the Wake County school board of "resegregating" the schools.

"The five members of our school board are trying to make socioeconomic diversity, which is a proven research friend of school excellence, a dirty word. It's wrong and it's very dangerous," Rev. Dr. William Barber told ABC News.

Rev. Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, was one of 19 people arrested at a school board meeting following the protest.

The fight is about busing. The school board recently voted to stop busing students from lower income neighborhoods to wealthier ones and vice versa. The policy was designed to ensure socioeconomic diversity, with a goal of no school having more than 40 percent of its student body participating in the free or reduced lunch program.

The school board voted five to four to change the policy. The majority argues it forces some students to travel up to 30 miles from home, adds millions in transportation costs and is out of step with the times.

"There may be parts of America where we need to encourage and really push higher levels of integration as best as possible. It's just not Wake County," said school board member John Tedesco, who says that the district will save as much as $14 million by making the changes and that he'd rather use money to pay teachers over filling bus gas tanks.

"This is a huge county, 850 square miles. There are parts on the eastern side that are challenged economically, and there are parts on the western side that are affluent, but you just can't do it logistically, because of the size of the county, bus out the inequities," Tedesco said.

But Rev. Barber says the district is on a path to two separate and unequal school systems.

"Pockets of misery, racially identifiable high poverty schools in one place, private schools built with public dollars in another place, that is not what we should want for our children," he said.

In Wake County, 'There Weren't Any Schools Where All the Kids Were Poor'

Education expert Mike Petrilli, who serves as the vice president for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says in many ways the busing system in Wade County was a success.

"Test scores in Wake County looked pretty good, compared to other places and nationally," Petrilli said. "And they had succeeded in making sure that most schools in Wake County were middle-class schools, you didn't find the inner city schools that you find in most parts of the country. There weren't any schools where all the kids were poor."

In the 1970s and '80s, school districts across the country used busing and other means of redistricting to promote racial diversity. The practice increasingly fell out of favor in more recent years.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that districts could not bus students based on race, though they could follow a policy such as Wake County's that takes economic factors into consideration. Today, the vast majority of schools do not bus students to achieve any kind of diversity, and Petrilli says America's classrooms show it.

"Most schools in this country have either mostly white kids, or mostly African-American kids, or mostly Hispanic kids, mostly middle class or mostly poor," he said. "There's not a great deal of schools where there's a real mix and a lot of diversity."

That can have negative consequences.

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