Weak Tea Party Connection to Wake County, N.C., School Board

On Jan. 12, The Washington Post ran a story with the headline "Republican School Board in N.C. Backed by Tea Party Abolishes Integration Policy." For decades Wake County, which includes the state capital, Raleigh, has bused students to schools in other parts of the county to promote racial and socioeconomic integration. The county's academically strongest magnet schools are often located in high-poverty urban areas.

The 5–4 Republican majority elected to the board in 2009 is seeking to undo the program. The Post article sparked a wave of Web items repeating the Tea Party connection with headlines such as "Tea Party Fights to Abolish School Integration" (Raw Story). Liberal bloggers were quick to run with the apparent Tea Party effort to segregate schools and use it as evidence that the movement is motivated by racism. "For people who are so careful about denying any racism in their ranks, I'd say that fighting for segregation doesn't do much to convince people otherwise," quipped Susie Madrak of Crooks and Liars. On Tuesday, Stephen Colbert did a segment on the subject, cracking, "How dare you insinuate that people who have adopted the name Tea Party are looking backwards?"

But was the school board really "backed by the national Tea Party"? No, the national Tea Party movement doesn't normally get involved in races for school board. As Mark Twain might have said, an inaccurate generalization gets all over the Internet before the truth gets its pants on. The explanation in the Post, which is found about two thirds of the way through the article, is that Americans for Prosperity (AFP)—which the Post identifies as "the nation's largest tea party organizers"—is supporting the board's efforts. Americans for Prosperity is not actually a Tea Party organization. It is a staunchly conservative advocacy group, funded by large donors such as the shadowy Koch brothers. Critics characterize it as an "Astroturf" organization, to distinguish it from genuine grassroots like the Tea Party movement. Like similar organizations such as FreedomWorks, it has partnered with grassroots Tea Party activists for events including the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party Protests and on local political campaigns.

But when I called JennyBeth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, a network of hundreds of state and local Tea Party groups, she had heard nothing of the brouhaha in Wake County. The North Carolina Tea Party Patriots state coordinator, Mark Hager, a local radio host, knew about the Wake County issue but said that no Tea Party activists he knew were involved in it. "We don't have candidates for school board," said Hager. "I don't know of a Tea Party coordinator across North Carolina who called me and said, 'I need your help to back a school-board candidate.' " Hager said he was sympathetic to the school board's concerns about the cost and managerial hassles of busing students around the county but agnostic about whether the board had resolved them correctly. There is no Tea Party Patriots organization in Wake County, and the Tea Party of neighboring Durham County refused to comment on the controversy in Wake County, saying that "matters related to the Wake Co. school system are outside our purview." Hager did acknowledge that the North Carolina Tea Party has worked with AFP and the John Locke Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Raleigh that the Post article also mentioned, on other issues.

As for AFP, its national office says the national organization has not been involved with the Wake County school board, but that the state group affiliate has. The North Carolina AFP issued a widely ignored statement last week admitting it was "pleased to play some small part in this fight," but magnanimously added, "We have to credit the real leaders in this fight—the parents and voters of Wake County that elected a school board committed to a more modern and cost-effective system of public education."

AFP's North Carolina coordinator, Dallas Woodhouse, reiterated that view in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "I think 'Tea Party–backed' is a bit of a stretch," said Woodhouse. He noted that the election (which, in his words, "took out the garbage that was on the old school board") was in 2009, before the Tea Party's electoral impact was being felt. He says his group did only voter education and volunteer work on the school-board campaign, with no direct expenditures (e.g., it did not buy any ads or make any campaign donations). Local conservative education activists agree that AFP and the Locke Foundation were marginal actors in the school-board race, and the Tea Party was not a presence at all. "It had nothing to do with the Tea Party," says Joey Stansbury, a longtime community activist with a group called Wake Cares. "What's being portrayed in the larger media is erroneous. It was disaffected, disillusioned parents in the community."

Local school-board supporters will tell you that the disillusionment was not motivated by opposition to integration as such, but rather by the logistical problems and inequities caused by the busing program. They complain that students in outlying areas could not attend schools with rich academic programs unless they traveled far afield, that overcrowding in growing suburban school districts was causing them to switch to a year-round schedule, and that sending kids to faraway schools stifles parental involvement. Any segregation that results from returning to geographic alignment of schools, they say, is incidental. "The idea that we are resegregating the schools is ludicrous," says Woodhouse. "Segregation was done at the point of a gun."

Woodhouse admits that the segregation of residential housing patterns will cause some de facto segregation. But in his conservative world view, that's simply not the government's concern. "Some areas are whiter and some areas are a little more colored [in Wake County]. That's the society we live in," Woodhouse says. "It's not the job of the school board to fix people's housing patterns."