Photo courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

A few folks may have had some hopes that when Benjamin Todd Jealous announced last month that the NAACP would unveil its first education advocacy agenda since the height of the Civil Rights Movement five decades ago. The fact that the work was being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also offered some possibility that the grand dame of old-school civil rights groups would offer a school reform agenda that would actually meet the educational and civil rights challenges facing Black America today.

But as I noted last month, part of the NAACP’s agenda focused on cutting criminal justice spending, which would actually do little to solve the underlying cause of high levels of imprisonment — the low quality of education in America’s schools (and the racial, ethnic, gender and economic achievement gaps that they help foster). And now, Jealous and company once again are wading in on the wrong issue in education: The fractious battle over  school zoning policy in Wake County, N.C.

For the past year, the majority on the board of the 167-school district have been pushing to return to zoned schooling, essentially eliminating the array of magnet schools and other options created as part of a three decade-long desegregation effort. The NAACP’s local branch, along with ivory tower integrationists such as Richard Kahlenberg (who has touted Wake County as an example of the academic success that can come from integration) have essentially accused the board of trying to return back to the racial segregation of the past.

This tenuous argument would only hold if the current school attendance arrangement was anything close to the wide-ranging intra-district choice ivory tower civil rights activists proclaimed it to be. In reality, fewer than a fifth of students attending them; most Wake County students were attending schools within five miles of their own homes. Only 33 of the district’s schools (less than 20 percent of the district’s schools) are magnets, which meant that the offerings were always more limited than national perception.

The bigger problem lies at the fatal conceit of the view of the NAACP and its allies in the ivory tower: That economic and racial desegregation will lead to improvements in student achievement. This hasn’t borne itself for the most part, and it definitely hasn’t in Wake County. Even as Wake County was paraded around by the Kahlenberg crowd as an exemplar of how integration improves student achievement, the district itself admitted there were still wide achievement gaps along race and economic lines.

In a 2007 report, the district noted that the math performance of black and Latino middle graders was behind that of their white and Asian peers. Fifty five percent of Latino male middle-schoolers and 45 percent of their black males counterparts had math scores below Levels III and IV of the state’s standardized tests. Despite the abysmal performance. the district still promoted 95 percent of its students; just 4.5 percent of all students (and only 8.5 percent of black and Latino students)  were  held back.

Of course, Jealous and the Kahlenberg crowd would argue that integration is critical to improving educational opportunity for all kids — and that it is true to the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement of five decades ago. But what both sides fail to understand is that desegregation was pursued mostly as a last resort; blacks wouldn’t achieve it immediately through the fiscal means (equal funding of schools) simply because of the opposition of Jim Crow segregationist-controlled school boards and legislatures. The idea that blacks would gain a better education (and greater entree into society) by merely rubbing shoulders with white kids and attending their schools was only a secondary thought.

What NAACP’s leadership doesn’t fully seem to understand — despite Jealous’ own response last month to the complaints of ivy tower civil rights guru Richard Kahlenberg to the contrary — is that desegregation alone will not address achievement gaps or improve the quality of education for poor black and Latino kids. Desegregation efforts in the 1960s and 1970s did help middle class blacks gain greater access to society; but they, like their white middle class schoolmates,  were already guaranteed some level of it. But for poor blacks or Latinos (and even for poor whites), desegregation merely guaranteed that the instruction and curricula they would receive would be just as desultory in diverse classrooms as they were in segregated ones. Until there is an overhaul of instruction, curriculum and state laws and teacher contracts that essentially lead to poor schools getting low-quality teachers, integration will remain what Charles Ogletree called a false promise. [(By the way, the NAACP’s other efforts on the school reform front do include sensible ideas as increasing the school day.]

This doesn’t mean that Wake County’s efforts to go back to zoned schools makes sense; as discussed on last week on Dropout Nation, restricting school choice is antithetical to ensuring that education is the civil right it is supposed to be. At the same time, the NAACP has picked the wrong education battleground. It should have chose better. This isn’t to say that schools shouldn’t be economically or racially diverse — it’s certainly a worthy goal — but it hasn’t worked in giving all children the high-quality instruction and curricula they need to write their own stories. Integration has to be secondary to systemic school reform.