Recently the Raleigh News & Observer’s website carried a picture of a man and a woman conversing in front of the Wake County Schools building. The caption identified them by name and explained that the woman was in favor of the current busing policy that the existing board majority is slated to end, while the gentleman was not. While the reader could see the conviction on both of their faces, the two appeared to be enjoying a peaceable, issues-based, civil discussion.
How sad it is that this portrait could not serve to personify the rest of the day’s events. The ensuing calamity has been repeated in local media ad nauseum—by the end of the day the picture on the front page of the N&O’s website had been changed to reflect the city’s percolating restless mood—young men and women being led into a police van, the countenance of self-proclaimed defiance and victory on their faces. Unfortunately for the protestors—led by the state NAACP and President Rev. Dr. William Barber—they failed to accomplish little of what they set out to do. Rather than appealing to facts and reason as a basis for standing against the new school board majority’s proposed policy change, they appealed to empty emotion and came away from the protests looking not like voices of rationality, but as a disrespectful body unwilling to concede the current failures of the Wake County School system.
One goal should be shared by both parties in this debate: to step back, take a deep breath, and discuss the abeyant benefits and drawbacks of the proposal rationally. The day before the melee, the local media didn’t help the situation with the above the fold headline: “Wake schools fight to get loud.” While the News & Observer’s inflammatory heading is frustrating to those attempting to engage in honest debates about the potential merits and drawbacks of the proposed system, one cannot assign too much blame. They are simply trying to sell newspapers, and conflict like Wake County currently finds itself embroiled in sells newspapers. That doesn’t mean the citizens of Wake County should buy into the demagogic rhetoric and throw all civility and reason out the window.
The tactics being employed by those opposed to the proposal are classic Saul Alinsky, the notorious Chicago community organizer from the mid twentieth century. One of Mr. Alinsky’s principles is to “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.” The target of the protestors so far has been school board member John Tedesco. Mr. Tedesco has been called every name overheard on the first grade playground, as well as the hollow, yet hurtful, grown up versions of those insults—including the oft repeated but rarely substantiated “racist” claim. One sign has shown up at several protests against the new school board majority—a creepy “historical marker” shaped suspiciously like a tombstone reading “John Tedesco; March 23, 2010; Wake County School Board Member; Voted to restore segregation. Had a vague plan in mind.” No doubt Alinsky would burst with pride to see his principle executed to perfection in Wake County today. While this strategy may score cheap political points in the short term, it only serves to distract citizens from the real issue—our failing schools, and the fact that the busing policy has failed to improve educational performance for the students it is designed to help.
The great irony of Mr. Tedesco is that he stated his support for neighborhood schools plainly and succinctly during the 2009 municipal election—his push for neighborhood schools should come as no surprise, and (unlike many politicians) he is helping to deliver on one of his campaign promises. His district realized the failure of the current busing system, and sent him to the school board to explore other alternatives to the current system.
The standard retort to the argument that the board’s current majority won an election fair and square is that turnout was low for the 2009 municipal election at 11.37 percent—ironically up from the 2007 election which boasted a 10.93 percent turnout. Paradoxically, most of the members who make up the current minority on the board were elected in 2007. If the results of the 2009 election are impeached based upon low turnout, then the results of the 2007 election should also be impeached based upon an even lower turnout. This argument fails to hold water and, if accepted, is poisonous to our representative democracy.
It has been announced that the school board will be considering a hybrid of neighborhood schools and the current forced busing system. While the NAACP and Dr. Barber have yet to issue a statement on the potential compromise, it is likely that any plan short of the current status quo will be rejected. The local NAACP has become so intertwined in the debate and so adamant in labeling the neighborhood schools proposal as “segregation” that it would look incredibly hypocritical for a hybrid proposal to be accepted. “Does the NAACP endorse ‘half segregation’?” One can already hear the retorts.
The neighborhood schools proposal is a meaningful one which will fundamentally alter the fabric of Wake County public education. It is a mature, grown up issue, and it deserves mature, grown up discussion rather than the shouting of inflammatory, empty platitudes from both sides. For the health of our democracy and the good of our community, both sides should step back, take a breath, and discuss the positives and negatives calmly—not for ourselves or our own political gain, but for the children of Wake County.
This article originally appeared in the Lincoln Tribune.