"Resegregation is on the rise," said the Rev. William Barber, chairman of the state NAACP chapter. "The rates now are worse than in the 1970s."
Wake County has been the scene of acrimonious dispute since the school board voted to scrap a decade-old policy that used busing to achieve socio-economic balance in public schools. The NAACP and other groups have staged protests and marches and filed a federal civil rights complaint. Barber is among several who have been arrested in demonstrations against the end of the policy.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous addressed the conference on Friday night, comparing the century-old organization to a family that rallies together in the face of adversity.
"It is time for the family to go back out into the country and tell them what's going on in Wake County," he said. "Our schools today are more segregated than they have been at any time since the 1960s."
Jealous gave an overview of what he says will be the NAACP's first comprehensive policy on education since the civil rights era. He said the four pillars of the policy will be improved teacher quality, longer school years, mandatory pre-kindergarten education and more resources for underperforming students.
The NAACP's criticism of the Wake board is out of touch with both the reality of public education and recent Supreme Court rulings, according to Roger Clegg, president of the Falls Church, Va.-based Center for Equal Opportunity.
A 2007 decision by the court found that school districts can't pursue integration policies by using students' race as a basis, which Clegg argues is what busing for diversity amounts to.
"Even if you think there's something desirable about having a politically correct racial and ethnic mix, it doesn't justify the enormous costs of engaging in racial discrimination," he said.
That decision coincidentally put Wake County in the national spotlight as a district trying to achieve integration without directly relying on race, according to UCLA professor and civil rights scholar Gary Orfield.
"Raleigh was the leader in substituting social class and test scores for race-conscious remedies, and some people had a lot of hope in that," he said.
Clegg also challenges the claim that schools are becoming more segregated, arguing that falling percentages of white students matches the declining number of whites in the population overall.
The term "segregation" doesn't refer to demographic change, but to legal policies explicitly designed to keep people of different races separated from each other, Clegg said.
"If you use that definition, not only is there no resegregation in the United States, there is not a single segregated school in the United States," he said.