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Alves' advice on Wake schools: Assignment zones must be fair



Michael Alves, the Massachusetts-based guru of "controlled choice" plans for student assignment, made his Wake County debut Tuesday in the role of gray-haired eminence who might be able to forge a peace between the warring pro-diversity and pro-neighborhood-schools forces.

At the Wake school board's Student Assignment Committee, Alves said he's seen some horrible inner-city schools in his years of consulting, so as he was driven around Raleigh the day before, he expected to see at least one—but never did. He saw only good schools.

Alves didn't add, but might have, that the reason for the absence of bad inner-city schools could be, as Syracuse professor emeritus Gerald Grant explained in his book Hope and Despair in The American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, the diversity policy that the new school board majority chucked out immediately after taking power.

The new majority complains that they're misunderstood. They do not "intend" to resegregate the Wake schools, Ron Margiotta, the board chair, insists. "The difference is huge between my intent and the perception" of her critics, says vice chair Debra Goldman.

Well, OK, in the spirit of diversity, let's take the majority at face value. Let's posit that, although it looks like they're going to resegregate the school system, intentionally or otherwise, maybe we're seeing it that way because our experience with civil rights issues differs from theirs.

That is, so many on the pro-diversity side, both black and white, come out of the civil rights movement (or their parents did) and are very familiar with what White Backlash looks like. That's not the case with the all-white, all-Republican school board majority, who would have us believe that racism is a thing of the past, and the big problem in Wake County is the one they've experienced: instability in school assignments.

So let's put ourselves in the majority's place, even though they resolutely refuse to put themselves in ours. Let's say that we want to curb instability—too many students reassigned too often to schools too far away—via a new system of assignment zones in the county. But we also don't want resegregation, which Goldman calls "a horrifying and hideous thought."

If we—they—intend to achieve both outcomes, then we should listen to Alves, who says the fundamental principle the board must follow when establishing its zones is "equity"—basic fairness. What that means, he says, is that in drawing the lines, the board must create zones that are "equivalent" in terms of student achievement and socioeconomic makeup. Each one should be, as much as possible, "a microcosm of the county."

For eight months, the board majority has rejected every suggestion, and every motion by one of the board members in the pro-diversity minority, that socioeconomic data, including how many students in a neighborhood are eligible for a free or reduced lunch, should remain part of the student assignment equation.

Alves made it clear that such data must be factored in with students' test scores to avoid having a system "where some children are benefitting and some are not."

"You don't want any family disenfranchised or disadvantaged because of where they live," he told the committee and its chair, John Tedesco. "If you do that, your plan will fail."

Alves has worked with school systems nationwide to establish controlled-choice plans. In them, no students are assigned to any school; rather, they (and their parents) choose where they want to go, and their second choice and so on. If too many choose the same school, lotteries thin out the list.

The first and oldest such plan is in Cambridge, Mass. With 15 schools and 5,700 students, the district is small enough that zones weren't needed. Students applied to any school in the city. The key was making every school a good one.

Wake County is too big for one zone, Alves said, though some schools in the center—Raleigh—might be open to students countywide. He suggested zones of about 20,000 students—equivalent to a medium-sized district—as a good size. Wake's 140,000 students would be split seven ways.

If the zones are unequal, though, parents would quickly realize it and move to the "better" zones if they can afford them, he said. That would leave the bad zones with schools that are under capacity and used only by kids from poor families. That would be, among other things, expensive.

It would also be what the pro-diversity side considers resegregation, and what the school board majority adamantly denies it intends.

So what does the majority intend? As Alves says, we'll know when they draw zones on a map and either use the proper data to see if they're fair or they refuse to use them. "That's the crossroads," he told Tedesco's committee. "Because you have the data."

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