The stakes in the battle over the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina couldn’t be higher.
On one side are the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, and the Tea Party and libertarian groups they fund. On the other, parents, students and community leaders who are bent on stopping measures passed by the conservative-led school board that they argue would re-segregate the county’s public schools, which had been a national model for diversity and integration.
Since 2000, Wake County has used a system of integration based on income. Under this program, no more than 40 percent of any school’s students could receive subsidized lunches, a proxy for determining the level of poverty. The school district is the 18th largest in the country, and includes Raleigh, its surrounding suburbs and rural areas. It became one of the first school systems in the nation to adopt such a plan.
But Wake County’s plan became a political flash point when five conservative candidates were elected to the new school board on a "neighborhood schools" platform that would dismantle the existing integration policy.
These candidates were endorsed by the group WakeCares, which has opposed the county’s busing and integration policy. WakeCares, in turn, has been the recipient of outspoken public -- and financial -- support from Americans For Prosperity, a political activist group funded in part by the Koch Brothers. Americans for Prosperity’s North Carolina state director Dallas Woodhouse told The Huffington Post that the group "did not spend a single dime” on the 2009 Wake County school board elections. In an earlier blog, Woodhouse said the AFP "is on record as supporting the parents of WakeCares through significant financial contributions as well as other support."
In a story published by Newsweek earlier this year that questioned the Tea Party's role in the school board election, Woodhouse is quoted as saying Americans for Prosperity did "voter education and volunteer work on the school-board campaign.” Woodhouse, in a follow-up interview with HuffPost, said "That was a mis-quote by Newsweek" and that "They framed it in the election, where what we had done is voter education and work on the issue after the election."
Independently of the organization, Art Pope, a wealthy conservative businessman in North Carolina and a national director of Americans for Prosperity, gave more than $15,000 to the Wake County GOP, which then used nearly all of that money on the conservative candidates running in the 2009 school board election.
The new school board touted their plan as one that would end busing and eliminate class, and subsequently race, as a factor for student school assignments. The "neighborhood schools" plan would assign students to schools closer to where they lived, meaning students from mostly poor and black communities would likely attend schools whose demographics were much the same. White children from well-heeled families would be more likely to attend schools filled with upper-middle class white children and enjoy more resources.
The elections led to heated protests. Under pressure from community groups and activists, the school board halted the plan for further review. It has since developed a number of alternative plans, though most of those would still have some re-segregating effect.
The NAACP filed a complaint with the Department of Justice in response, and there have been legal challenges based on the plan's constitutionality.
“Our issue is how are the children, both black and white, going to be cared for,” said the Rev. WIlliam Barber, who heads the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. “When we argue for diversity, it is not simply, 'People need to be in close proximity to each other.' Whenever you have racially identifiable, high-poverty schools, you also have corresponding with that under-resources and high teacher turnover.”
The complaint filed by the NAACP contends that "African-American, Hispanic and mixed-race students and their families, have been injured by the intentionally racially discriminatory actions of a five-member majority of the Wake County Board of Education," and that upon winning a majority, the new board "immediately took drastic steps to reassign non-White students to schools with a higher percentage of non-White students than their prior school, and to reassign White students to schools with a higher percentage of white students than their prior school.”
Following the NAACP's complaint, the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation into the "neighborhood schools" plan, and in January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chided the Wake County school board in a letter to The Washington Post.
"America's strength has always been a function of its diversity, so it is troubling to see North Carolina's Wake County school board take steps to reverse a long-standing policy to promote racial diversity in its schools," wrote Duncan, who warned against other school boards adopting similar plans. "I respectfully urge school boards across America to fully consider the consequences before taking such action," Duncan wrote. "This is no time to go backward."
Opponents, like the filmmaker and activist Robert Greenwald, say at the heart of the battle is a larger fight over publicly-funded education and the Koch brothers commitment to funding activism, which falls in line with their libertarian agenda.
"I don't want to be a panic or hysteric, but if you can have the Koch brother billionaires, multibillionaires, buying a school board election, where does it stop?" said Greenwald, who this morning released "Koch Brothers Exposed: Why do the Koch Brothers Want to End Public Education?", a short film on the Koch Brothers' role in the Wake County election.
“This money is buying ideology and that has a consequence," he said. "It's such a tough situation because here are local people with a school system that is working, that people are enjoying, that has created a good education, created diversity [and] created success."
Michael Evans, who until last Friday was the school district's chief spokesman, said that in March the board gave incoming superintendent Tony Tata the responsibility to come up with a new plan. But even as various plans are being developed and presented, the "neighborhood schools” plan has been tweaked. Students, for now, would not be sent back to their community schools. Evans said the hope is to make a decision on the new plan sometime in the early fall, to put in place the following school year.
Parents and opponents of the new board's actions are bracing for elections in October, fearing that if the conservative majority is maintained on the board, it will feel emboldened to push harder with their plans.
Rita Rakestraw, a Democrat who ran for a seat on the school board in 2009 and was defeated by an Americans for Prosperity conservative candidate, said that Democrats are gearing up for a tough pushback this time around.
"A lot of people are just disappointed, hoping that we can turn this thing around and vote in a better school board with these elections," said Rakestraw, who is now active in the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that has been critical of the current school board.
“It's a crying shame that white conservatives from the Midwest and the Koch brothers would come into the South and pump millions of dollars into our elections to go back to segregated schools," she said. "They need to get their nose out of our business."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Americans for Prosperity "bankrolled" the school board campaign. AFP did not directly provide funding. This reference has been removed and additional details about AFP and the role of Wake Cares has been added.