An important conversation on schools

Jan. 16, 2013 @ 04:26 PM

Almost inadvertently, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education has initiated a critically important conversation.

Actually, that observation is not quite true to the nuances of the situation. We’re not sure there’s been much conversation surrounding the board’s current debate, although there should be. And the issue is hardly new.

What has the board at odds with one another started as a relatively small change in student assignments. A relative handful of homes in Woodcroft whose children now are assigned to – but seldom attend – Hillside High School would be reassigned to Jordan High School.

At the root of the proposed change and the anxiety over it is the inescapable fact that over the past couple of decades, despite strenuous efforts to ensure diversity in Durham public schools, the district as a whole has become less diverse.

Families – especially higher-income families – are fleeing the traditional public schools for the area’s robust landscape of private schools and, increasingly, public charter schools. And while higher socioeconomic groups of all races are part of that move, the overall impact has been to steadily reduce the percentage of white students in the traditional public schools.

The questions this presents are painful but vital to ask and debate.

How important is diversity?  Are traditional public schools in danger of losing some of the most vocal, supportive and influential members of the community as supporters as their children and their neighbors’ children depart for different educational options?

While some charter schools enroll low-income students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and need school-provided transportation to get to and from school, many charters do not. Are we at risk of creating a traditional public school district disproportionately burdened with educating the most challenging students? Does the surge in charter schools speak to parental concern over school quality and environment, or does it exacerbate poor performance and challenging environments in the traditional public schools? Or both?

Do we want to invest time, energy and taxpayer dollars in devising a transportation plan to better diversify Durham Public Schools at the risk of further alienating some families?

Jordan High School roughly equates to the city’s racial composition as a whole – 40 percent African American, 39 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic. For the district as a whole, those numbers are far less balanced – 19 percent white, 51 percent African American, 24 percent Hispanic.

This debate, this challenge, is not unique to Durham. “School boards across the country have often had to balance having diverse and racially balanced schools on one hand and retaining families on the other,” Charles Clotfelter, a public policy professor at Duke University, observed. “For Durham, it is not a brand new issue, and Durham is not alone in facing it.”

Nonetheless, it falls to us to resolve the issue here. And it is an issue that warrants full, frank and thoughtful public discussion.