July 24, 2010 — -- 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.
"If you have a school full of nothing but kids coming from poverty with all the challenges that they bring, it's very hard to make those schools effective schools," Petrilli said.
But some parents in Raleigh have been vocal in their support of the school board's vote. They argue kids should be able to go to the school in the neighborhood where they live.
"I am proud of the school board because you're doing exactly what the families need and want," said one father during a public comment period during a school board meeting earlier this week. "Keep up the good work and thank you for ending forced busing."
"Our schools were being operated by social engineers, not educators," added another dad.
Five Miles From Home Is the Farthest Distance to Attend School
But proponents of the policy say accounts of students forced to travel great distances are highly exaggerated. They point out that of the more than 140,000 students in the county, 86 percent attend a school within 5 miles from home, another 12 percent attend magnet schools, leaving only 3 percent of children who have to travel more than 5 miles to get to school.
Mike Petrilli says that while no parent wants their child to have to be the one to get on a bus hours earlier than others in the neighborhood, for the larger community, the burden may be worth the benefit.
"I would say it's a lost opportunity, that something very special was happening in Wake County, that was a real beacon for the rest of the county and it's too bad it's going away," he said. "At the same time, it's unfair to single out Wake County because they're now going to a system that every other system in the country practically already embraces."
The Wake County school board is formulating a new plan to replace the old policy with the help of outside educators and experts. They will hold a series of public comment meetings this fall.
Rev. Barber, who attended kindergarten and first grade in the segregated South, says his group and others will be there and are considering legal action to bring the busing back.
"When you know the history of the South, the one thing the South should never want to do is step backwards. One step backwards any way into resegregation is shameful," he said. "Diversity is a good thing, diversity is what's right, diversity is what we ought to be shooting for, diversity is a way to right economic and racial injustice. It's a blessed reality."