Poverty's place in the school debate

Recent proposed changes by the Wake County School Board don't consider the implications for poverty.

Poverty has been the elephant in the room during debates about Wake County's school assignment plan.

This week the school board voted to end the longstanding policy that encouraged socioeconomic diversity in schools. That plan tried to ensure that no school had more than 40 percent of its students on the free or reduced-price lunch program. The new policy eliminates busing students outside of their "community zones" and will quickly lead to segregation by economic status and resegregation by race.

Members of the new majority on the Wake County school board have turned their backs on fundamental issues of social justice and democracy. Their actions undercut nearly a half century of effort to battle the poverty and racism that for so long had blighted North Carolina.

Poverty makes a big difference in the lives of the county's schoolchildren - and the consequences extend well beyond the cafeteria. Children who can't afford lunch ($1.75 for K-5 and $2 for grades 6-12) probably don't get enough to eat at breakfast or dinner; probably don't have the financial resources for a home computer, music lessons, tutors or athletic equipment; and may not even have a quiet place to study at night. In these circumstances, even the most academically gifted children start at a disadvantage in the quest for a quality education.

The old school assignment plan would not have ended poverty, but the new plan will surely make matters worse for the poor. Why? Because poor people lack the political power to demand their fair share of resources. They lack the money to run for office or support the politicians who get elected, and they do not belong to the social networks through which public policy gets made.

Poor people lack the financial means to subsidize the additional school programs and extra-curricular activities that middle-class families purchase through silent auctions, wrapping-paper sales and innumerable other fundraisers. Parents who work two jobs to pay the bills often don't have the time to volunteer in their children's schools, and so those schools lack the valuable energy and talents that parents with flexible schedules provide. And, finally, schools full of poor children find it difficult to attract faculty and administrators with the same level of training and experience as wealthier schools.

In short, poor schools lead to a second-tier education, which makes it all the more difficult for children to escape poverty.

We have just completed a book on the battle against poverty and inequality in the 1960s spearheaded by N.C. Gov. Terry Sanford. In Sanford's view, public education was the "vital tool for the creation of new jobs, for the development of a more substantial and diversified economic structure, for the elimination of the causes of poverty, the easing of prejudices and racial discrimination, the fulfillment of individual aspirations, and the cultivation of all human capacities."

But Sanford also realized the state would reap none of those benefits until it addressed the legacies of racial discrimination and attacked poverty at its roots. That was a difficult task then, and it is no less challenging today.

The problems of poverty and inequality, which are at the heart of the Wake County school controversy, demand a new level of ethical commitment from individuals, organizations and institutions across North Carolina. They demand an engaged citizen response that includes people from the bottom to the top of the socioeconomic ladder. They demand joint problem-solving and shared responses to challenges.

The poor must find ways to voice their needs and concerns, others who care for justice must contest the division of society into "we the people" and "they the poor" and all of us must make an effort to create human relationships that bridge our differences and turn them into sources of strength rather than alienation.

The vote to dismantle the student assignment plan is a step backward. But the residents of Wake County, and all of North Carolina, have an opportunity to right this wrong. Our frustration over the school board's actions should drive a new moral commitment - and the public policy to go with it - to heal the injuries inflicted by poverty and inequality. There is still time to rise to Terry Sanford's challenge - "the cultivation of all human capacities" - regardless of whether people live in the inner city or the suburbs.

Robert Korstad (Sanford School, Duke) and James Leloudis (UNC-Chapel Hill) are historians and senior fellows in the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. They are the authors of the new book, "To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America." This op-ed first ran in the (Raleigh) News & Observer.