John McCain and Russ Feingold, 1999. Gerald Ford, 2000. Kofi Annan, 2004. Edward Kennedy, 2009. Elizabeth Redenbaugh, 2011. These are some of the recipients of the Profile in Courage Award, an honor given to public servants by the JFK library. The names are highly recognizable, except for one: Who is Elizabeth Redenbaugh?
Elizabeth Redenbaugh is a member of the Board of Education in New Hanover County, the second smallest county in North Carolina. She has been the lone Republican to oppose "neighborhood schools", a concept that directs students to schools in their neighborhood and a system that was in force before the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Redenbaugh has faced criticism and personal attacks from her neighbors, co-workers, and other members of the Republican party because of her opposition ever since she was elected to the Board in 2008.
I have written about the situation in North Carolina regarding the highly esteemed, but now jeopardized, statewide mandate for school diversity. The State of North Carolina has striven to keep all schools from having high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students through the way it disburses money to the counties. Schools boards across the state have to sign an affidavit during redistricting that their plans do not contribute to high poverty schools. Through an elaborate and intricate networks of bussing routes, the counties in the state have followed this mandate for many years. With the election of Republicans to State Legislature and to local governments, however, this system is now in jeopardy. Emboldened by this new legislature, "neighborhood school" proponents have begun to dominate school board agendas across the state, and the state is now poised to create high poverty schools in high poverty areas.
Since the Award on May 23, Redenbaugh has faced renewed rebuke from other Republican members of the Board, especially those who have served the longest. Don Hayes, the chairman of the Board stated publicly to the local news, "I think it's called Profiles in Courage. If it were actually entitled Profiles in Hypocrisy, I could better understand." Another member of the Board, Janice Cavenaugh, who has served as a member for the last 25 years, sent a very public letter to the local newspaper and asked that it not be edited and be published in full. She stated:
As a member of the board I have been labeled a racist for simply supporting neighborhood schools. I believe it has taken a great deal of courage for me to consistently stand for my convictions despite the personal attacks.
I don't understand a profiles in courage award for a board member who won't even send her own children to inner city schools. Ms. Redenbaugh espouses one position but does not abide by her own position. She continues to send her children to suburban schools that she believes to be unequal in a socioeconomic manner. When the computerized map based on the Wake County diversity model sent her neighborhood to an inner city school she vigorously opposed that move. That to me is not a profile in courage.
Please publish my exact words. Please do NOT edit.
I asked Redenbaugh a few questions regarding her own experiences, her beliefs, and the criticism around the Award from other members of her own party, her neighbors, and her co-workers:
Elizabeth, how do you respond do your critics and their accusations?
Their accusations are based on false assumptions and beliefs. Our Board was actively engaged in the redistricting process from July 2009 to March 2010. During that time frame, numerous redistricting maps were created and eliminated. The initial proposed diversity map was rejected by a majority of the Board in September, 2009, once a second diversity map had been introduced that capped the projected number of students receiving free and reduced lunch at each of the middle schools at 50 percent and also reduced the distance students would have to travel to attend school.
The initial proposed diversity map required students from across the county to travel much greater distances to school and incited the anger of parents. Only two Board members opposed the elimination of the initial diversity map, Don Hayes being one of them.
What drives you to oppose "neighborhood schools" when you are surrounded by those who favor it?
I am a very ordinary person who made the intentional decision to submit to what I perceived to be the will of an extraordinary God. I recall listening to a church sermon podcast in 2007 where the pastor said, "we are all made in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, are all worthy of being treated with dignity, value and respect."
When I first learned of our school board's intent to return to neighborhood schools in late 2007, I knew instantly the result would be the resegregation of our schools, as my community's residential housing patterns are segregated. It was and is clear to me we are not treating others with dignity, value and respect when we segregate our schools. My political courage to oppose neighborhood schools stems from my faith in God when so many fervently oppose my position on diversity in our schools.
Have you had personal experience with either "neighborhood schools" or "school diversity"?
Yes. I feel compelled to share two stories that eclipse my own experiences and drive home the need for diversity in our schools.
Several weeks ago, one of my district's teachers told me of a very disturbing conversation she had with an African American student who attends one of our recently redistricted high poverty/high minority schools. She had asked this student what he aspired to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to be a drug dealer. He added if there was just one thing he could change about his life, he would change his neighborhood. The issues he faces in his neighborhood now spill over into school, and there is simply no escaping the harsh reality of his circumstances. He explained he feels completely and utterly hopeless.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, last year I heard from a family member of a white student who attends a low poverty/low minority school. The family member shared how the student literally had a panic attack while visiting a large metropolitan area when the family found themselves in a major commercial intersection in the presence of numerous African Americans. There was nothing threatening about the situation, but the family was forced to leave the city due to the child's reaction. The entire family was shocked how the lack of exposure to diversity in school had impacted their child's behavior.
What is your stand on the merits of "school diversity"?
The last twenty years have seen the erosion of Brown v. Board of Education. However, I stand firm in the conviction separate will never be equal.
Years of research has proven high poverty concentration, which often goes hand in hand with racial isolation, is a recipe for failure. In fact, only 1.1 percent of high poverty schools are consistently high performing. In the business world, would anyone ever dream of proposing a project with almost a 99 percent chance for failure?
Children who grow up in poverty often start kindergarten at a deficit compared to their more affluent peers. Their parents may be working several jobs and may have had bad experiences themselves in school. Those same parents are less likely to volunteer in the classroom and hold the school administration accountable in the event problems arise. Turnover of teachers and staff occurs at a much faster rate in high poverty schools.
Our local data, as well as national data, demonstrates poor children perform better in low poverty schools. During our many redistricting forums, we had many parents who were emphatic their children were not to be used as guinea pigs in what they considered to be a failed social experiment. However, the benefits run both ways. With diversity in the classroom, children learn how to be productive members of a multicultural society. Real change happens in the context of relationships. When diversity is absent, we cannot build relationships and instead build walls that breed fear of others not like ourselves.
Lastly, what should citizens do in going forward to ensure democracy for all?
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We must stand up and have the courage to point out injustice when we see it. We help ensure democracy for all when we continue to engage in the conversation, even when we hear things that make us feel uncomfortable. I have observed the tendency of many to shut down and stop listening the moment race is mentioned.
In fact, in a recent letter to my local newspaper, an individual wrote we should "leave race out of the conversation." Moreover, he stated if we would "stop making a big deal of it it [sic] would go away." Since receiving the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and the posting of my acceptance speech on You Tube, I have been encouraged by several self-described neighborhood school supporters who have approached me and said I have them thinking of things they had never before considered. They state they are now confused and are rethinking their position.
We have a long way to go in New Hanover County, but I count that as a good start.
Redenbaugh's acceptance speech is now available on YouTube.
The Profile in Courage Award is given to those who follow their conscience in their public service despite what they may face because of that conscience.
Elizabeth Redenbaugh has followed her conscience, and that, despite what the Janice Cavenaughs or Don Hayeses of today say, is a Profile in Courage.