Has Wake County’s socioeconomic diversity policy driven affluent students away? John Tedesco recently made that claim again in this tendentious column by a Minnesota newspaper columnist:
While the county's overall poverty rate is about 10 percent, its schools are now at 30 percent because the affluent are fleeing to private schools, says Tedesco. The national average for opting out of public schools is about 8 1/2 percent, he says. "Our rate has doubled in 10 years to almost 18 percent. Guess who's left behind?"
A similar claim was made earlier in the piece he co-authored with Ron Margiotta:
In 2000, approximately 9 percent of families with school-aged children had opted out of public schools. In 2010, the percent of Wake County children enrolled in private schools had nearly doubled to 17.5 percent. One contributing factor to this exodus of students has been the continuing uncertainty surrounding school assignment and school calendar.
Are these things true? No. As explained below, the schools are not at 30% poverty. The affluent are not fleeing to private schools due to the diversity policy, assignment uncertainty, calendar changes, or anything else. No one is fleeing, because Wake County’s opt-out rate is essentially unchanged and has not doubled in ten years from 9% to 18%.
Let’s take a look at the details.
The schools are not at 30% poverty.
According to Wake County Quickfacts from the US Census Bureau, 9.2% of persons in Wake County were below the poverty level in 2008, the year used by the Bureau. The number has likely risen a bit since due to the condition of the economy.
For 2009-10, the last school year for which complete demographic information has been published by WCPSS, the percentage of children eligible for a free or reduced price meal (our “FRL percentage”) is 31.2%.
Does this show that the public schools have three times as many poor children as the population at large? No. The two numbers measure different things. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, children were eligible for a free or reduced price lunch in 2009 at income levels of up to 185% of the poverty line.
More people have incomes of up to 185% of the poverty line than have income of up to 100% of the poverty line. How many more? We can approximate. The Census Bureau reports that in 2008, 13% of households made less than $15,000. This conservatively estimates the income range of persons in poverty, who numbered 14.6% that year. Multiply the upper end of the range, $15,000, by 185%, and you are looking at household incomes of up to $27,750. From that same census data, we know that 27.9% of households made less than $27,500. In other words, we can estimate that twice as many households (27.9% versus 14.6%) qualify for free or reduced price meals as fall below the poverty level. Put another way, we can estimate that about half of the FRL percentage falls below the poverty line, or 16%.
The affluent are not fleeing to private schools due to the diversity policy, assignment uncertainty, calendar changes, or anything else.
So, about 16% of kids in our schools fall below the poverty line, while about 9% of the overall population falls below it. Does this difference between the actual number and the expected number mean that the affluent are fleeing the public schools? Again, no.
No one is fleeing, because Wake County’s opt-out rate (the percentage attending private or home school) is essentially unchanged in the last decade. It has not doubled in ten years from 9% to 18%. It has risen from 13.3% to 14.5%. Based on national data, 14% opting out is the number you would expect when you adjust for Wake’s poverty distribution.
As this national data make clear, private schools everywhere disproportionately serve the rich, which necessarily implies that public schools everywhere disproportionately serve the poor. But comparison of Wake County’s opt-out percentage to national norms shows that Wake County has not driven away any more (or fewer) than average.
So here’s your next question to think about. Tedesco often promotes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a “neighborhood schools” model. The poverty level in Mecklenburg County is 10.9%. The poverty level in CMS is about 26% (1/2 of the FRL percentage, 53%). The expected value for CMS differs from the actual by 15%, not the 7% you see in Wake. And we haven’t even looked at the stark differences in surrounding county developments yet.
So if assignment plans determine who opts out of our public schools, and your goal is to retain affluent students, which plan would you rather have?