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Cook Column: How dare Colbert spoof and speak truth?

Stephen Colbert’s recent skewering of the Wake County Board of Education is funny until you look into Rowan County’s mirror.
Colbert is a comedian who spoofs conservatives by pretending to be one of them on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”
Recently he used the Wake County schools as the springboard for his “Word of the Day” — disintegration.
As in re-segregation.
For those who haven’t heard, voters elected a new conservative majority to the Wake County Board of Education in 2009 that is dismantling the schools’ decades-long quest for integration — a quest first based on race and then on socio-economics.
The school board designed its attendance zones so no school would have a student population that was largely economically disadvantaged. No more than 40 percent of a school’s students could be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Conservatives have words for that: “busing” and “social engineering.”
Colbert’s words for it were “Salisbury steak,” as in the policy “ensured that the student body came from as many different places as the meat in the lunchroom’s Salisbury steak.”
As a result, he said, “the best, most diverse schools are in the poorest sections, and a recent poll showed 94.5 percent of Wake County parents satisfied with their children’s school — clearly a tragic triumph of government intervention. …
“What can be done to control this out-of-control success story?”
• • •
Rowan County schools could use some success in the diversity department.
The 40-percent rule was adopted by the school board here, too — first limiting the percentage of minority students and then switching to the percentage of low-income students in a school.
But if the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education ever lived up to that standard, it has long been forgotten. The rejection of the policy and its goals is clear. When the system drew district lines for the Elizabeth Koontz Elementary School that opened in 2006, it created a crowded school with 75 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunch. Now more than 88 percent of Koontz’s students qualify.
The system has several schools with more than 75 percent on free or reduced lunch, and students suffer the consequences. A high poverty rate increases the challenges for teachers exponentially.
But any time someone breathes a word about redistricting — even to build up the dwindling student population at a high school — parents who don’t want their children moved go on full alert, and the board backs down. After all, they’re voters. Isn’t that what an elected board should do?
It’s hard to know what’s right. If the Wake County board had done a little more listening and backing down, it might not have spurred the revolt that now threatens diversity. But without standing firm, the Wake board could not have achieved diversity in the first place.
• • •
The debate goes in circles, and Colbert honed in on that. He quoted a Wake board member who said if the board had left some schools at 80 percent poverty, the public would see the challenge and the need to make the school successful. By spreading low-income students among many schools, John Tedesco said, it enabled the public to ignore the challenge.
Aha! Colbert grasped the logic immediately. Misguided government do-gooders foolishly diluted the problem by addressing it.
“We need to ignore it so we will pay attention to it,” he said.
A NAACP official said the Wake board was trying to build a model to replicate across the nation and take the country backward instead — to which Colbert struck an indignant pose.
“How dare you insinuate that people who have adopted the name ‘Tea Party’ are looking backwards.”
• • •
The Wake County clash is getting attention. The Washington Post focused on it in a Jan. 12 article, “In N.C., a new battle on school integration.”
That was followed by bloggers claiming either that the Post piece was full of liberal lies or that Wake County conservatives are racists.
Then came the Colbert spoof, which also touted a new “three Rs” in Wake County — readin’, ’ritin’ and resegregation.
Gov. Bev Perdue said she was “unhappy” when she saw the Colbert segment.
• • •
Several forces lie behind the drive to dismantle Wake’s diversity policy. But the biggest culprit may be the county’s own success. Wake continues to grow faster than its school system.
Wake’s population of about 900,000 is 72 percent white, 20 percent black and 9 percent Latino; about 9.2 percent live in poverty. Composing diverse student bodies across the entire district while growing by some 6,000 students a year has required frequent redistricting. In February 2009, the school board approved a plan to move 24,654 students to different schools over three years.
Remember the wails of opposition in Rowan when our board wanted to move a few hundred students? Multiply that by thousands.
Add the frustration caused by Raleigh’s notorious traffic congestion — a cross-town bus trip can take an hour — and you have the formula for citizen revolt.
You’ve also laid the groundwork for a clever comedian. Colbert is an entertainer, not a philosopher or politician. He made fun of Wake to get laughs. But he also gave us something to ponder. Where’s the line between striving for equality and engaging in social engineering? And who is the bigger fool if we succeed in giving up?
• • •
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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