Going backward in schools
Get a bunch of psychologists together who are also mothers, and there is bound to be scrutiny related to anything our children might come into contact with -- namely, the education system. So, when my good friend began expressing concern about the shifts in her local school district (Wake County, Raleigh, N.C.), I listened attentively but failed to fully grasp the implications.
Now that this story has reached a national stage, I think it would behoove us to pre-emptively examine where we stand as a city. In Wake County, newly elected school board members are working to change the way the students are assigned to schools.
Since 2000, the Wake County school board has focused on economic rather than racial variables and said no more than 40 percent of the students at any school could received free and reduced lunches, a standard measure of poverty in education. Because of this, high performing schools are not clustered in affluent neighborhoods. However, recent changes in the school board threaten to dismantle this system and replace it with a neighborhood school model that reifies racial and economic differences and weakens integration efforts.
It is only a matter of time before other school districts that have tried to maintain integrated schools will be subject to the same questions of cost and "social engineering" that led to the changes in Raleigh. People will need to be able to articulate the importance of integration without running away from the tough task. Name-calling and pigeon-holing (e.g., liberal, racist, forced busing, post racial) will only create a distraction from the severe problems at hand.
One new school board member of Wake County has stated that "This is Raleigh in 2010, not Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s - my life is integrated." As much as some would like to believe, we are not an integrated society. We are diverse on paper, increasingly so, but that does not mean we function in integrated spaces.
Public education as a whole needs an overhaul. That much is true. We've focused on test, teachers and students as the solution and source of the problem. Preparing our children to engage in a diverse world market from a young age is most certainly not the problem. Therefore, steps that will segregate rather than integrate our schools should be last on our list of where to focus our attention.
We have a public education system. If we fail to educate children today, we all lose out in the long run. I can understand the appeal of having neighborhood schools and local control. I am huge fan of community supported agriculture and buying locally. However, when it comes to education, we cannot get swept away by the local rhetoric.
To be clear, the opposite of local in this case is not federal. From a public education standpoint, we need to be mindful of the research that suggests that (1) exposure to diversity increases critical thinking and other cognitive outcomes, and (2) schools with concentrated rates of poverty lag behind. Sometimes focusing only on protecting, in the case educating, our own in the short run can lead to micro and macro problems in the long run. Hopefully the happenings of Wake County will prepare other districts to strengthen their articulation of the continued need for integration efforts.
Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.