In 1996, a child in Wake County, North Carolina, boards a school bus to attend a suburban school as part of a diversity policy that integrated the county’s public schools (RITA REED/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Far-right candidates are fueling backlash to Black Lives Matter and running for the Wake County school board to fight racial equity policies.

The criminal legal system is closely entangled with schools and education policy. This article is the final story in a three-part series, in the run-up to Nov. 3, about local elections where education issues are at stake. Here are the first and second stories of this series.

The Wake County, North Carolina, public school system was once renowned as a model of successful integration, standing apart from so many school districts that had failed to realize the promise of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, a slate of conservative candidates took over the Wake County school board and set out to dismantle the district’s diversity policy that determined how students were assigned to schools. Though Democrats regained control of the board in 2011, they never restored the policy. Now a slate of five conservative candidates is vying to win a majority on the nine-seat board on Nov. 3, and some have shown a clear antipathy toward racial equity.

“If they get elected, I definitely think that there could potentially be some challenge to the equity work that has been done in the district,” said Letha Muhammad, executive director of Education Justice Alliance, a local group that advocates for Black and Latinx families, as well as families of disabled children, within the Wake County school system. Muhammad said some of the candidates have been pandering to conservatives by using “inflammatory language” to drum up controversy over the district’s racial equity policies and curriculum.

Gregory Hahn, a Navy veteran who is running for the school board’s District 2 seat, includes “curriculum transparency” as a key tenet of his platform. On his website, Hahn says:  “School systems across the country are adopting Black Lives Matter curriculum at an alarming rate, indoctrinating our children to achieve Marxist objectives.” He criticizes the Teaching Tolerance curriculum developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center because the organization is “known for including conservative organizations on its list of ‘hate groups.’” And he’s adamantly in favor of keeping police in schools, an issue that school board members have been weighing since a video of a school police officer slamming a young girl to the ground was shared widely in 2017. Hahn is even endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, which does not typically get involved in school board races.

Rachel Mills, a real estate agent and former press secretary for former U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, is running in District 7 and taking a similar tack. Her website states that she won’t be “a rubber stamp for misguided Marxist agendas.” In a Facebook post, she referenced the district’s website for racial equity resources as an example of what she doesn’t support. When asked how educators should approach teaching history and current events in a time of heightened racial tension, Mills wrote in an email to The Appeal: Political Report that “we owe our kids the truth about these issues with a clear emphasis on reliable, hard data and original sources.” She was the only conservative candidate to respond to requests for comment.

Two other candidates—Steve Bergstrom and Karent Carter—are also advocating for issues like “transparency” and a “return to traditional education,” but without going into specific detail.

“It’s not clear,” said Muhammad about this kind of rhetoric. “I think that’s also a tactic.”

Deborah Prickett, who is running in District 1, was among the conservative candidates on the school board a decade ago. Now, though, her position on diversity in school assignments is not as explicit. During a PTA forum with District 1 incumbent Heather Scott, a moderator asked if the candidates would support a policy to ensure that every school would have a diverse student population. Prickett deflected by saying that she “believes all children should have access to good schools.” 

But many locals believe Prickett would continue her crusade against diversity policies if she took office again. The editorial board of the News & Observer in Raleigh endorsed Scott, writing that Prickett’s “acrimonious leadership led to explosive meetings, demonstrations, and arrests of protesters. There’s no need to revisit that era.”

If Wake County does, it’s possible that the school district’s progress toward racial equity could be eroded.

The current Wake County Public School System was formed in 1976 when the largely Black Raleigh City Schools merged with the suburban, white Wake County schools. This created a large and diverse school system that, at the time, business leaders believed would safeguard the county’s economy from the effect of “white flight.” Individual schools were diverse too, thanks to a school assignment policy based on race.

In light of federal courts striking down other school districts’ race-based student assignment policies, in 2000, Wake County school district administrators used new benchmarks based on economic and academic factors instead. No more than 40 percent of students at any school could receive free and reduced lunch, and only 25 percent of students could be low-performing academically.

In effect, the new approach maintained racial diversity and it drew national attention; there were articles in major media outlets and two books written about the diversity policy. 

Wake County also became renowned nationwide for academic achievement and teacher quality. The schools, along with the generally low cost of living compared to other regions, contributed to a population explosion. Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s population grew by over 40 percent, and this made the school assignment process increasingly complicated.

A chorus of complaints steadily grew among suburban families. Parents concerned about the school board’s decision to convert some schools to a year-round academic calendar formed an advocacy group called Wake CARES. The group sued the school board over the issue and lost. But observant GOP leaders invited the disgruntled parents into a new political movement that was sweeping the country.

After Obama’s historic presidential win in 2008, and the economic downturn caused by the housing market crash, predominantly white and middle- to upper-class conservatives—like those of Wake CARES—began seeking ways to regain political control. The Tea Party became their vehicle, and it began by concentrating on local elections, including school boards.

Multimillionaire GOP megadonor Art Pope was a lightning rod for building conservative power in North Carolina. In 2009, Pope donated $15,000 to the Wake GOP during the school board race. A cohort of five conservative candidates ran on the promise of ending the district’s diversity policy.

All five, including Prickett, won their races and quickly worked to change how students were assigned to schools. Their plan eliminated the diversity clause in the assignment policy and focused on sending students to neighborhood schools instead of busing, though kids in some majority Black areas would still be bused far away. Superintendent Del Burns resigned in protest, and said the plan was an attempt to carve the district into “have” and “have not” subdistricts. 

Activists from the NAACP and the Southern Coalition of Social Justice, as well as parents, students, and teachers, held protests during school board meetings and eventually filed a legal complaint against the school system. The case, which also concerned racial disparities in school discipline. was taken on by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and made national news. The accreditation board, AdvancED, also considered revoking the Wake County Public School System’s credentials. 

What was once a national example of a successful diversity policy and school performance had become a cautionary tale.

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In 2011, Democrats ousted most of the Wake County school board’s conservative members, but they had made an indelible mark. In January 2012, a compromise school assignment policy went into effect. It gave parents more power to send their children to the school of their choice, and it emphasized attending schools close to home. It didn’t include provisions to ensure diversity.

Since then, Wake County school board members have not attempted to reinstate the diversity policy, but they have taken other steps toward addressing racial equity. The board created the Office of Equity Affairs as part of a settlement in connection with the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education. The office provides “cultural proficiency training” to teachers and administrators, and works to eliminate racial disparities in discipline. The move rankled conservatives who felt it was a waste of funding. 

The school board has also revised a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the district and local law enforcement agencies to improve how school police do their jobs. The law enforcement MOU has drawn criticism from community members who want police removed from schools. After renewing the MOU in 2017, the board admitted the document needed a broader overhaul, “We’re not going to hold up the MOU, but we absolutely agree that there’s some work to do,” Monika Johnson-Hostler told the News & Observer at the time.

The MOU was up for renewal again this summer, as Black Lives Matter protests rocked the country. At a June board meeting, community members sent in comments calling for an end to the SRO program and thousands have signed a petition. But even after admitting that they could have done more to engage the community,  a majority of board members voted to renew the MOU for one year, rather than the usual 3 years, to give them time to gain stakeholder input. The decision drew protests from several activist groups that want police-free schools, including Education Justice Alliance and the Wake County Black Student Coalition. 

District 2 incumbent Monika Johnston-Holster, who is running against Hahn, was the only board member who voted against renewing the MOU. She gave an impassioned speech criticizing the board for failing to move forward with a Peacebuilders program and other alternatives to policing that community members support.

“This vote is really about the consistency of requests asking us to make a change and we haven’t done that,” she said. “I think for me, this is really about my own children who are in my life, who at the end of the day will look back at these videos [of police brutality] and say, ‘Where are you on the right side of history?’”

Though discipline and policing have become the primary focus of the district’s equity initiatives, Scott, the District 1 incumbent, told the Political Report that administrators were starting to return to the issue of diversity in school assignments before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

“Last year, the [Wake County Public School System] started to explore using census data to shape student assignment,” she said in an email. “This would help us consider different ways of reducing the number of students receiving free and reduced lunch at specific schools, which would also help address questions of how best to provide equitable programming and support across the system.” 

Now the future of that effort is on the line. In many ways, 2020 mirrors the social and political climate of 2008. There is a global upheaval in the form of COVID-19, there is racial unrest since the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others sparked a worldwide protest for Black lives, and there is a rise in populist nationalism as a reaction to these crises. Similar to the Republican school board candidate slate of 2009, the 2020 challengers joined other conservative parents in airing frustrations about issues like math curriculum and the delayed opening of public schools because of the pandemic which, combined with complaints about Black Lives Matter, created an appetite for candidates with extreme positions on racial justice in education.

But there’s another similarity: Many Raleigh community members are ready to fight for their public schools. Education Justice Alliance held a candidate forum and has been working to educate people about the school board election. Muhammad says the group will continue to organize beyond Nov. 3.

“It would require us to mobilize our families, our parents, and our students,” she said , “if folks got into office who were [against] the things that we know are important, like equity in the schools and addressing the over-criminalization of Black and brown students, and the removal of school resource officers.”