The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments

reviewed by Genevieve Siegel-Hawley & Rachel Levy - October 24, 2016

coverTitle: The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments
Author(s): Toby L. Parcel and Andrew J. Taylor
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
ISBN: 1469622548, Pages: 192, Year: 2015
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Changes to student assignment policies determining who goes to school with whom typically engender political controversies around race, class, opportunity, and equity. In 2009, North Carolina's Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), which includes the city of Raleigh, drew national attention as area leaders debated significant shifts to a student assignment policy long held up as a model for promoting diversity. In a fast growing, city-suburban district historically committed to comprehensive school desegregation, the tensions between old and new, conservative and progressive, and a narrowly- and a broadly-defined community came to a head. North Carolina State University sociologist Toby L. Parcel and political scientist Andrew J. Taylor take us into the heart of these controversies in their recent book, The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments. Parcel and Taylor’s principal findings, laid out over seven concise chapters and an epilogue/conclusion, showcase a tension between those who prioritized racially and economically heterogeneous schools versus those who prioritized neighborhood schools.

In Chapter One, Parcel and Taylor begin by providing an explanation of the social scientific research and theory behind diversity-based and neighborhood-based student assignment policies. They point out that while researchers have studied relationships between school composition and academic achievement, they have not explored the organization of schools very much. Specifically, researchers have not found out how neighborhoods come to have the student composition that they do in the first place, particularly in a contemporary context.

Most of the details describing what brought about comprehensive desegregation specific to Wake County are reserved for Chapter Two. For one, a 1968 study commissioned by Governor Moore advocated for the consolidation of North Carolina county and city school districts at least in part because it would facilitate desegregation. In addition, the merger of Wake County and Raleigh school systems in the summer of 1976 occurred against a backdrop of U.S. Supreme Court rulings concerning school desegregation, including Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Alexander v. Holmes, and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg. It also included directives from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare regarding Wake’s integration plans and fears of continued white flight from Raleigh. Finally, after various failed local attempts to merge, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill that would ultimately mandate a merger and the city and county governing bodies worked to get a merger proposal passed. But starting at least as early as 1980, as the population exploded, particularly with transplants from the North where schools are often organized into smaller town- and municipally-based systems, students’ school assignments were subject to frequent change. Year-round schooling was also introduced at some schools as a way to save costs and accommodate more students. It was chosen by some families and mandated for others, particularly as schools with this type of schedule were initially found to be less diverse.

By the mid-1990s, a newly emboldened Republican party began to question diversity-based versus neighborhood-based assignments. Another series of judicial decisions began rolling back court ordered desegregation and limiting race-conscious voluntary integration, prompting Wake County to switch from a student assignment plan based on racial diversity to one based on socioeconomic diversity in the early 2000s.

Chapters Three, Four, and Five pair a presentation of the recent history of student assignment policies with extensive survey findings and explore how Wake County navigated extreme population growth. These results show that women, African Americans, liberals, and younger residents were more heavily in favor of student assignment policies that prioritized diversity. Residents with school-aged children and those with less education were most supportive of neighborhood schools. A finding central to the argument of the book is that support for diverse schools and support for neighborhood schools is not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, the fast-growing district that was studied exacerbated these two priorities. Annual reassignments of students, which seemed unpredictable to the many families impacted by them, became necessary to maintain diversity as the population grew and new schools were constructed. Less educated lower income women with more children and conservatives were most concerned with what Parcel and Taylor term as the challenges, dangers, and uncertainty of annual reassignment. Those with more trust in government and, with some exceptions, African Americans were less concerned about such issues than white residents.

Chapter Six dives into the aftermath of the issues and conflicts surrounding the student assignment policies and practices: the school board elections of 2009. Parcel and Taylor also present results from their survey of residents’ evaluations of the board’s performance. Members came into office with the support of relatively large campaign contributions from national conservative interests amid the Tea Party wave sweeping the country. As a result, for the first time in history, the school board was a majority Republican and conservative. However, the board was also slow to formulate and implement new policies. In Chapter Seven, the authors provide a comparison of Wake County to other jurisdictions and conclude that it has been in a unique position to implement the diversity-based student assignment policies. Finally, Chapter Eight provides an epilogue, the conclusion, and further thoughts.

The End of Consensus is written well and provides a strong and compelling narrative. Parcel and Taylor deftly provide important contextual, historical, political, and cultural details to paint a nuanced portrait of the undoing of a national model for voluntary school integration. An area of further exploration for the authors revolves around the comparisons they sought to draw between Wake County and other jurisdictions. This analysis was based almost entirely on secondary research and could be strengthened with more primary analysis. One could envision a similar survey being disseminated in jurisdictions of interest.

Overall, The End of Consensus offers an essential case study of a merged city-county school district complete with rich contextual descriptions, historical details, and groundbreaking survey evidence around the contemporary politics of student assignment. Anyone wondering what happened during this tumultuous period in Wake County’s history should read this text. This interdisciplinary book would be especially useful for students and scholars interested in the intersection of race, class, and educational inequality.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 24, 2016 ID Number: 21688, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:28:26 AM

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