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Busing Fuss – N.C. marchers take aim at school diversity policy

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RALEIGH, N.C. – At a rally on Saturday where the main issue was the end of a busing-for-diversity policy in North Carolina’s largest school district, speakers warned the large crowd that marching is not enough.

“You’ve got to do something when you leave here,” the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, told a large crowd that marched from Shaw University to the state Legislature over what organizers call efforts to re-segregate public schools across North Carolina, with Wake County as the model.

The dispute over Wake’s socio-economic diversity policy has drawn national attention to North Carolina’s largest school district. A majority of school board members voted last year to scrap a decade-old plan that bused some students around the district to achieve socio-economic – and, as a result, racial – balance.

The decision to end the policy has resulted in criticism from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and with a complaint filed with the education department’s Office for Civil Rights.

The rally brought national NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous to Raleigh, who compared the contemporary dispute to the civil rights era.

“We’re still fighting the old Jim Crow,” Jealous said.

In remarks to The Associated Press before the march, Jealous said the outcome of the Wake County fight would be closely watched in school districts around the country.

“The far right activists targeted a number of school boards in North Carolina, and there’s reason to be concerned that they’re using Wake County, and North Carolina in general, to send a regressive message to the rest of the country,” he said.

Calls to members of the school board who voted to scrap the policy were not immediately returned. Five of the nine board members face elections this November, including school board Chairman Ron Margiotta, a supporter of ending the busing plan. Speakers tried to hammer home the importance of voting in those contests.

“We’re going to have a referendum on regression,” Barber said.

An estimate of the crowd’s size was not immediately available Saturday, but a long line of marchers snaked through several city blocks as they made their way to Jones Street. Although the school diversity issue was at the forefront, marchers carried signs touching on a long list of liberal and progressive concerns, from death penalty opposition to illegal immigrants’ access to higher education.

But the school issue was paramount, and not only for marchers from Wake County. Buses from Wilmington to Newton, many organized by churches, brought people to the event.

“I want my children to live out the American dream,” said the Rev. Marvin Cuffee Sr., who made the trip from Charlotte. Cuffee said he has a 17-year-old and a 9-year-old in public schools, and worries about whether they’re getting a fair shot at a good education.

“I’m trying to make sure they’re adequately prepared for the future,” he said.

Complaints have also been filed with the U.S. Department of Education regarding Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the state’s second-largest school district. The board of education there decided last year to close nearly a dozen, primarily nonwhite schools for budgetary reasons, sparking protest from some parents and civil rights groups.

Fay Bown, who has three children in Wake County schools, said she came to the march in the belief that diversity in schools shouldn’t be a divisive issue.

“People everywhere want an equal opportunity for their children,” she said, gesturing at the crowd. “I’m hoping this will be an eye-opener.”

Associated Press