NAACP takes legal action against Wake schools

NAACP North Carolina State Conference President William J. Barber II. (AP image)

September 26, 2010 8:07:41 AM PDT
Flanked by national NAACP president Ben Jealous, the Rev. William Barber announced Saturday the organization has taken legal action against the Wake County Public School System over its decision to end a nationally-recognized socio-economic diversity policy.

"Forward ever, backwards never," said Barber. "They have tried to make diversity a dirty word and that's wrong."

The announcement was made Saturday morning at the Christian Faith Baptist Church in Raleigh.

Barber said his group filed has filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department and the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying that Wake's new policies violate that law which says that the recipients of federal funds cannot discriminate on basis of race, color or national origin.

The U.S. Department of Education spends more than $77 million a year in Wake County.

Barber said that Wake's old diversity policy - which said that no more than 40 percent of students in any school could be below a certain socioeconomic level - "should be embraced, not dismantled."

"They are stuck in an ideological time warp that wants to go backwards," said Barber.

National NAACP President Ben Jealous said it was important for him to be in Raleigh for the announcement to show the national organization is behind Barber.

"We are Americans and these are our children," he said. "In this country where we spend so much time fixing what's broken, how dare you break what's fixed."

Despite the tough talk and the new civil rights complaint, the Chair of the Wake County School Board says nothing will change.

"It will be a distraction," Ron Margiotta said. "But I think we've reached a point where it will be a minor distraction."

Margiotta denies an allegation that kids were moved from Garner to South-East Raleigh High School because of ethnic status, but agrees the district did suspend and expel minority students at disproportionate rates. But he also points out the board has adopted new rules to change that.

"That problem is gone," he said. "It's not here any more. And I would have agreed with Rev. Barber on that point."

And ultimately, Margiotta says the new plan is just better for students.

"The past plan that did have diversity included tended to be a good public relations act, but it failed terribly when it came to academics, he said."

All of this comes on the heels of what looks to be a mounting battle between the school system and a national accreditation organization.

Colleges often use high school accreditation as a factor in admitting students.

AdvancEd announced it intends to review actions and decisions -- like how new policies have been made, what's been done in the move toward community schools, and how the seat voucher system works for public meetings -- made by the Wake County School Board since January 1, 2010 earlier this year after it got a complaint from the NAACP.

In its response to AdvancED's requests for information in advance of sending a review team to the district, the school board said it has "serious concerns about the basis, purpose, and scope" of the visit.

A letter from Wake attorney Ann Majestic says the requests "strongly suggest that AdvancEd wishes to second guess the merits of the Board's decision to transition to a community-based school assignment plan."

"We have serious concerns about the proposed investigation and how it relates to accreditation our high schools," Majestic said. "What I understand from the letter we received from their attorney is that any decision of a school board is open for their investigation and that really seems to go well beyond their standards."

After the school board got a stern rebuke, saying not cooperating could make getting accredited much more difficult, the board appears to be softening somewhat and is considering co-operating with the agency.

"Anytime you put the accreditation of your schools, any of your schools in this case our high schools in jeopardy that's a serious issue," WCPSS Board Member Keith Sutton said.

The current majority on the Wake County School Board voted to move away from its long-standing diversity policy, and toward a community-based school assignment plan in a series of contentious meetings earlier this year.

Many of those meetings led to arrests, including of Rev. Barber, who led Saturday's announcement.

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