Behind the battle over diversity in the Wake County school system is a complicated problem that confronts the new school board majority: How should Wake’s 140,000 students be assigned to specific schools?

The answer, to a group of academics and community leaders, is that assignments should serve the goal of academic excellence, not diversity per se. “The Wake school board saga,” says Paul Bitting, associate professor in the College of Education at N.C. State University, “has averted our attention from the real question, which is how do we assure academic achievement?”

Wake’s diversity policy has been turned into a hot-button issue by its critics, says Kathleen Brown, associate professor of education at UNC-Chapel Hill, in their desire to switch to neighborhood schools. “I’m not saying I’m against neighborhood schools,” Brown goes on, “but we must do it thoughtfully, carefully,” or else lose all the educational benefits that diverse schools bring.

The diversity policy, former Wake Schools Superintendent Bill McNeal reminded an audience of 450 at the Great Schools in Wake coalition forum March 20, was always a means to an end: to ensure that every student could attend a healthy school with high academic standards. “It has never been diversity for diversity’s sake,” McNeal said.

For years, opponents of Wake’s diversity policy said students should be allowed to attend the schools closest to their homes. But that simple-sounding solution doesn’t work, as the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership demonstrated in February.

If all students were sent to their closest school, the WEP analysis showed, about two dozen of Wake’159 schools would be at or above 150 percent of their capacity. Another two dozen would be below 50 percent capacity.

The reality, therefore, is that even under a “neighborhood schools” policy, some students would be assigned closest to home while others would be sent to schools in different neighborhoods, even different towns.

And, according to the WEP analysis, if assignments were made strictly on the basis of the closest school, at least 15 schools would be considered low-income (with two-thirds of students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program); another 27 schools would be high-income (less than 10 percent of students F&R-eligible).

As for what would happen next, says UNC-Charlotte educational researcher Amy Hawn Nelson, “you don’t have to guess, because you have a case study three hours down the road. And it isn’t pretty.”

Nelson, who also teaches in a high-poverty elementary school in Charlotte, was talking about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, which dropped its diversity policy in 2002. Within five years, she said, a system that was proud of its racial integration became re-segregated. By 2007, the number of schools with at least 90 percent of students F&R-eligible had gone from zero to nine; in 32 schools, more than 90 percent of the students were non-white.

Wake’s five-member school board majority, though, argues that such re-segregation won’t occur here. Or if it does, it won’t matter.

In an e-mail sent recently to some of his critics, John Tedesco said that because of diversity assignments, “[t]housands of kids are getting pushed aside just because they’re poor.”

Some students are bused out of high-poverty neighborhoods to suburban schools, Tedesco wrote, while affluent students are lured to magnet schools “with all kinds of extra perks and choices” that the suburban schools don’t have. “This is a social justice issue for me,” he said.

Tedesco and other board-majority members cite the gap between Wake’s overall graduation rate and the rate for economically disadvantaged students (last year it was 78 percent to 54 percent) as evidence that the diversity policy doesn’t help low-income students.

But diversity’s supporters argue that the 54 percent figure, while not good, is much higher than in most American cities.

Forty years of research since court-ordered school integration began supports the conclusion that poor kids do worse when they’re in high-poverty schools and better when in economically diverse schools, says Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C. Middle- and upper-income kids do equally well in diverse and high-income schools.

Myriad problems plague high-poverty schools, Kahlenberg told the GSIW forum, including high rates of teacher and student turnover, more disrespect for teachers and limited vocabularies of students and their peers.

The problem with teachers is especially acute, according to Helen Ladd, an economist and professor of public policy at Duke University. Ladd and other Duke researchers found that the best trained, most experienced teachers in North Carolina avoid high-poverty schools even if offered more money to teach in them. “The greater the segregation,” Ladd says, “the more money would be needed” to entice strong teachers to a problem schoolas much as 58 percent more, according to the Duke studies.

Kahlenberg and Gerald Grant, the Syracuse University professor emeritus who wrote the 2009 book “Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh,” said the battle over diversity in Wake is a byproduct of the school system’s dramatic population growth in recent years combined with the fact that the school system has been “run on the cheap.” Wake ranks 85th out of the state’s 100 counties, he said, spending just $7,800 a year.

Kahlenberg pointed to the fact that as Wake scrimped on new schools, it allowed five of 159 schools to exceed the 60 percent level for F&R-eligible students, despite the official goal of having no school over 40 percent.

Kahlenberg said Wake can be split into a small number of “community assignment zones” that protect diversity while giving students a choice among reasonably proximate schools. But the zones “must be demographically diverse,” he emphasized, and Wake should increase spending on programs for disadvantaged students.

His handful of “zones,” he added, should not be confused with Tedesco’s plans for about 20 zones, including some high-poverty zones. “I want to clear up any misconception that what I was advocating had anything to do with what the board [majority] is advocating,” Kahlenberg said.