The sprawling Wake County School District has long been a rarity. Some of its best, most diverse schools are in the poorest sections of this capital city. And its suburban schools, rather than being exclusive enclaves, include children whose parents cannot afford a house in the neighborhood.
But over the past year, a new majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives has set the district on a strikingly different course. Pledging to "say no to the social engineers!" it has abolished the policy behind one of the nation's most celebrated integration efforts.
And as the board moves toward a system in which students attend neighborhood schools, some members are embracing the provocative idea that concentrating poor children, who are usually minorities, in a few schools could have merits - logic that critics are blasting as a 21st-century case for segregation.
The situation unfolding here in some ways represents a first foray of tea party conservatives into the business of shaping a public school system, and it has made Wake County the center of a fierce debate over the principle first enshrined in the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education: that diversity and quality education go hand in hand.
The new school board has won applause from parents who blame the old policy - which sought to avoid high-poverty, racially isolated schools - for an array of problems in the district and who say that promoting diversity is no longer a proper or necessary goal for public schools.
Stop and think about that.
Wake County, home of the capital of the state I grew up in a Southern state no less, is telling children and parents that diversity is no longer a proper or necessary goal for public schools.
Before the Tea Party took control of the GOP, Wake County was a held up as a model school district. It dropped racial integration for economic integration ten years ago and since then is one of the better ranked large school districts in not just the state, but the entire country.
Over the years, both Republican and Democratic school boards supported the system. A study of 2007 graduation rates by EdWeek magazine ranked Wake County 17th among the nation's 50 largest districts, with a rate of 64 percent, just below Virginia's Prince William County. While most students posted gains in state reading and math tests last year - more than three-quarters passed - the stubborn achievement gap that separates minority students from their white peers has persisted, though it has narrowed by some measures. And many parents see benefits beyond test scores.
To recap, Wake County schools improved significantly with the plan, and both Republicans and Democrats praised it.
That was before the Tea Party decided they wanted to take the schools backwards.
Things have not gone smoothly as the new school board has attempted to define its vision for raising student achievement. A preliminary map of new school assignments did not please some of the new majority's own constituents. And critics expressed alarm that the plan would create a handful of high-poverty, racially isolated schools, a scenario that the new majority has begun embracing.
Pope, who is a former state legislator, said he would back extra funding for such schools.
"If we end up with a concentration of students underperforming academically, it may be easier to reach out to them," he said. "Hypothetically, we should consider that as well."
Under the old plan, the entire district performed better. Test scores and graduation rates were higher. A diverse, rising tide lifted all boats.
Now we're back to "We don't want them in our school." Unbelievable. You poor, minority kids can have your own school. Hell, we'll pay you to stay out of ours.
Is this 2011 or 1951? Way to set a national example of what you would do with power, Teabaggers.