If we’re considering the merits, this shouldn’t even be a debate.
But because we’re talking about education — a public good tightly linked to social status — it will be a brutal and merciless debate, rife with scare tactics and misinformation. The societal fears that drive politics around education, housing and social services generally pivot on race, religion, immigration status and class. When it comes to public education in Forsyth County, the battle lines of defending privilege are drawn mostly along lines of race and class.
Yes, I’m talking about the School Choice assignment plan implemented by Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in 1995. The five candidates for the two open seats on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board in urban District 1 unanimously favor ending School Choice — essentially proposing a second try at the experiment in desegregation that held sway from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s. During that period, the district bused students across the county so that each school roughly mirrored the demographic makeup of the county as a whole. In contrast to the agenda of the District 1 candidates, the four incumbents and one challenger in the race for suburban District 2 either currently support School Choice or have historically backed the assignment plan.
Two pieces of solid journalism from the past five years still hold potent insights for consideration of the future of public education in Forsyth County. The Winston-Salem Journal’s Choice at a Cost series, published in January 2014, explained why the district’s suburban schools are overcrowded while urban schools have become underpopulated.
“Schools in the best neighborhoods and with the best test scores become overcrowded while others start to wither,” reporter Arika Herron wrote. “Student bodies now mirror the notoriously homogenous racial makeup of the neighborhoods that schools pull their students from.” In other words, parents with the resources and motivation in poor neighborhoods send their children to schools in outlying areas with higher test scores, leaving behind the students with the highest needs and most disadvantages in urban schools. As reported by the Journal in 2014, of the 15 elementary schools that saw declines in reading scores on end-of-grade tests between 1997 and 2012, all but one also “became less diverse and more concentrated with low-income students.”
The typical solutions proposed to address the achievement gap will sound numbingly familiar to anyone who’s paid much attention to public education.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, who covered Durham Public Schools for the News & Observer from 2003 to 2006, recalled on the public radio show “This American Life” in 2015: “And I would go to schools, and they would just always be trying these new things that actually sounded like they might work. They would do things like, ‘We’ll put a great magnet program here. Or we are going to really focus on literacy. We’re going to start an early college high school, which kids would earn college credit in high school. We’re going to improve teacher quality. We’re going to replace the principal. More testing.’”
The second installment of Choice at a Cost ends with a quote from Superintendent Beverly Emory about the need “to catch students up more quickly” to close the achievement gap. “Unless we’re going to return to busing kids all over,” Emory added, “and I don’t think anybody wants that.”
Busing. It sounds like a dirty word.
It evokes ugly memories of white resistance to desegregation — most vividly, perhaps, when white parents and their children pelted a bus carrying black children to a desegregated high school with bricks.
Hannah-Jones, a recipient of the 2017 MacArthur “genius grant,” started looking into the data to understand what might actually be effective in closing the achievement gap.
“And I find this one thing that really worked, that cut the achievement gap between black and white students by half,” Hannah-Jones told “This American Life” host Ira Glass in 2015. “But it’s the one thing that we are not really talking about, and that very few places are doing anymore.”
What was it? You got it: integration.
Predictably, the trend lines in Forsyth County haven’t budged since 2014, when the Journal challenged education leaders to reconsider School Choice.
Last year, the state announced that eight elementary schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system — the highest of any county in the state — were eligible for takeover by a statewide charter school system based on low test scores. (In comparison, Durham County has five and Guilford County has three.)
Lest anyone think that schools will become more racially and socioeconomically balance based on the changing demographics of the neighborhoods from which they draw their students, consider the findings of a recent study by the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center. The study found that the number of Forsyth County residents in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty more than tripled from 2000 to 2016. The study found that 33,140 Forsyth County residents, or 9.1 percent, live in neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of people are below the federal poverty line. (For the record, Guilford County has the highest number of people who live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty — 42,056, or 8.3 percent of the overall population.) Forsyth County has the highest number of neighborhoods with concentrated poverty — 14 — in the state.
Forsyth County is deeply divided (Guilford only slightly less so). Suburban parents might see a value in defending their privilege along racial and class lines. But Forsyth’s strength — socially, economically, culturally — depends on its people’s ability to come together. This election year is a defining moment.