Facing South

N.C. school board engineered by conservative benefactor draws civil rights scrutiny

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wake_schools_protest_march.pngFederal civil rights investigators visited North Carolina last week to meet with Wake County Public School System leaders about allegations of racism made after the school board scrapped a student assignment policy designed to prevent segregation in the classroom.

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights met with school board chairman Ron Margiotta and others in Raleigh, N.C. on Dec. 7 to discuss the scope of their investigation into a complaint filed by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. The complaint came in response to a decision earlier this year by the recently-elected Republican majority on the officially nonpartisan board to eliminate a decade-old policy considering socioeconomic diversity in student assignments -- an approach that has been lauded for preventing the sort of urban-suburban educational disparities that have plagued other communities.

Instead, the board has called for a return to "neighborhood schools" while condemning "forced busing" and "social engineering" -- terms that the NAACP notes were used by pro-segregationists in the wake of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The Wake schools controversy was also the topic of the NAACP education conference held in Raleigh earlier this month. The civil rights organization is also planning a march in Raleigh on Feb. 12 to protest the board's plans. Meanwhile, AdvancED -- the national group that accredits Wake schools -- is reviewing the board's effort to scrap the diversity policy.

The board recently considered a proposal that would have reassigned some 6,000 students -- most of whom live in urban and historically African-American Southeast Raleigh and are bused to largely white suburban schools -- back to their neighborhood schools. The NAACP and others have objected that the plan will create schools with high concentrations of poverty and a lack of racial diversity.

Last week the school board's Democratic minority succeeded in temporarily blocking discussion of the reassignment plan after Margiotta missed the meeting due to a family illness. And at this week's meeting, the board's Democrats -- joined by maverick Republican Debra Goldman -- rejected a motion to put the Southeast Raleigh reassignments in place next school year. Goldman cited concerns that families in suburban areas and not those from Southeast Raleigh are pressing for the moves.

"Are those recommendations being made in regard to their own children or in regard to other people's children?" she said. "That's a defining point for me."

Art Pope.jpgSchooled by Pope

The plan to elect a school board majority willing to scrap the diversity assignment plan was the brainchild of Art Pope (photo at left), North Carolina's leading conservative benefactor and a national director of Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group representing corporate interests that was founded by oil billionaire David Koch of Koch Industries. A recent Facing South investigation documented the critical role Pope played in the Republican takeover of North Carolina's state legislature during the fall elections.

Pope also played a key role in the GOP's capture of the Wake County school board -- a fact revealed last December when the Raleigh News & Observer published the contents of an e-mail sent by Marc Scruggs, the finance chair of the Wake County Republican Party, to Margiotta in October 2009, the day after the first round of voting for board members. The message was released in response to a public records request:

I am fairly pleased with the elections yesterday - especially with the school board. Art Pope's plan the GOP implemented worked very well - and THANK YOU for your help and service.

Scruggs continued:

We don't have a solid game plan yet, but Art will be the architect.

Pope was the second-biggest individual contributor to the anti-diversity candidates' campaigns, contributing over $15,000 to the Wake GOP. The party in turn spent most of the money it received on campaign materials supporting the school board and other Republican candidates.

The top contributor to the anti-diversity candidates was Wake County businessman Bob Luddy, who gave $18,000 to those candidates and the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a group that opposes the diversity policy. Luddy serves as chair of the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, which a Facing South investigation found receives over 97 percent of its annual income from Art Pope's family foundation. Luddy also sits on the board of the John Locke Foundation, a think tank that also receives most of its funding from the Pope foundation.

On March 2 of this year, the school board took its first formal vote to rescind the diversity policy and return to neighborhood schools. At the same meeting, it hired Civitas to provide training for its members.

Winning even if they lose?

One needn't dig very deep into Pope's ideological networks to find a less-than-supportive attitude toward public schools.

Civitas and the John Locke Foundation have long been proponents of diverting public education money to private schools through voucher programs. But efforts of the groups' leaders on behalf of school privatization are not limited to the realm of advocacy.

Civitas Chair and Locke Foundation Director Luddy is also the founder and chair of Thales Academy, a chain of private K-8 schools in Wake County that charge $5,200 per year in tuition. In 2008, the company opened an academy in Apex, N.C. -- an overwhelmingly white and affluent suburb of Raleigh.

Among the trustees of the Thales Academy in Apex? Wake School Board Chair Margiotta.

Some have criticized Margiotta for divided loyalties, noting that the role of school board chair entails being a cheerleader for the public school system. But Margiotta says he sees no conflict in being on both boards.

At the same time, Margiotta and his Pope-backed school board allies are also unabashed supporters of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed and do not have to follow all of the same regulations as traditional public schools. Earlier this year, the board majority voted to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in North Carolina.

Statewide, the N.C. legislature's new Republican majority -- whose victory, as Facing South has documented, was fueled by over $2.2 million in election spending by Art Pope's family members and independent groups he funds -- has pledged to lift the cap on charter schools as well.

While it was originally thought that charter schools would be less segregated because they could enroll students from a wider area, it turns out that they are helping drive the re-segregation of the U.S. education system. Studies released earlier this year found that charter school students of every race are much more likely to attend what's considered "racially isolated" schools. That's especially true for black charter-school students, who typically attend an institution where nearly three in four students are also black.

The Wake County school board majority has repeatedly said that its aim is not to re-segregate the school system. Speaking at a board meeting earlier this year, Margiotta pledged that the board "does not intend to create high-poverty, low-performing schools." But he unnerved many in the community when, confronted with his words being quoted back to him just three weeks later, he denied saying such a thing.

In the meantime, the Department of Education's investigation into whether Wake schools are violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act continues. But tragically enough, if federal officials rule against the county, the schools stand to lose federal funding -- which could ultimately provide a boost to Pope's privatization schemes.

(Photo by Jerimee Richir from a July 2010 NAACP-led protest in Raleigh, N.C. over the Wake County School Board's dismantling of its diversity policy.)

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re: N.C. school board engineered by conservative benefactor draw

The US Department of Education is also investigating complaints filed over the recent decision of Charlotte's school board to close 10 schools, most of which are located in the inner city and serve predominantly high-poverty and minority students.The board took the action to approve recommendations from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools administration, despite immediate strong objections raised by the community and the NAACP.

re: N.C. school board engineered by conservative benefactor draw

I am from Onslow County, NC, formerly of Livingston County MI,
Pinckney School District.

I was involved, in the early 90's, in a similar situation with a packed conservative school board who got elected with the promise of lowering operating cost and thus our taxes. Their agenda turned out to be privatize the bus system, privatize the whole school system and to the extent possible introduce religion into the class room. The school board majority began operating in a manner inconsistent with Michigan law regarding the conduct of School Board members and the Michigan Open meetings laws. I sued the Board over the termination without cause of the Superintendent which was conducted in such a manner as to violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act and was awarded damages as prescribed by the law by an arbitration panel of mostly conservative lawyers.

Further we(a group of parents) demonstrated against the privatization scheme on the day that the president of the Company under consideration made a public visit to the school district. The board members had been illegally meeting with him in non public meetings. As a result of our demonstration the Company decided there was to much negative publicity to make this school district attractive to them and they broke off any further discussions. We were unable to block the privatization of the bus system but that was a sound business decision even though it did result in a pay cut for drivers.

I raised the red flag on the separation church and state issue when the Board gave a student an award for her achievement in bible studies.

I also worked closely with the state rep of the teachers union to make sure we all stayed on the same page with our actions regarding the board.

It is just amazing how fast a school system can get turned upside down when people with agendas other than serving in the best interest of the school district get control of the school board. Most of this board, when they did not get their way, did not complete their terms and at least one who was a new comer to the community, moved away.

These situations need to be handled agressively and decisively. A parents group with a good sympathetic lawyer can go a long way to nip this kind of take over in the bud.

re: N.C. school board engineered by conservative benefactor draw

History, both good and bad, is known to repeat itself. It has now been 56 years since "separate but equal" was voted unconstitutional in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Case. That day we began to move toward equality. Today we are again moving back toward segregation. The reality of the situation is that housing in America is very much segregated. Whites tend to live in mostly white areas, and many minority groups tend to live in mostly minority areas. Only those with lower socioeconomic status, mostly blacks and Hispanics, tend to live in poorer housing. By moving back to neighborhood based housing, and removing the diversity based plan, you will have segregated schools. The majority of the better schools will be in white neighborhoods because white neighborhoods tend to have higher property tax values, which means there is more money for schools. Many poorer areas that house mostly minorities will have poorer schools simply because there is not as much money going into the school.

Whether returning to segregation is the immediate intention of the school board I, of course, cannot say. I do, however, believe that each member of the school board is educated enough to know that returning to neighborhood based schools is not at all moving toward a better, more inclusive tomorrow. So, I cannot understand why on Earth they would even consider such an idea. Today, now, we have the opportunity to put a stop to a blatant form of modern day segregation.