As goes the election, so goes Tata? | The Election Page | Indy Week

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As goes the election, so goes Tata?

Public hearing on Tata's plan Thursday at Broughton High School

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How did the Wake school board elections turn out on Tuesday? The fate of Superintendent Tony Tata's student assignment plan was hanging in the balance—and maybe not in the way you've been led to believe.

Tata presented his plan to the school board a week ago, and he asked for a vote on Oct. 18 to give him time to execute it—and market it to parents—for the 2012–13 school year. Tata's plan is thus far incomplete, however, with a huge question mark shrouding the issue of whether it will avoid the creation of high-poverty schools, as Tata insists it must, or lead to them.

The only public hearing, scheduled for Thursday, 5 p.m., at Broughton High School in Raleigh, will doubtless focus on that question. A related question is whether, if unequal sets of "have" and "have-not" schools result from the plan, the more desirable schools will fill up within a few years, forcing families who move to Wake County afterward—or who move within Wake County—to accept the less desirable schools.

The answers hinge on the elections, the results of which weren't known when the Indy went to press. (Check the Indy's Citizen blog for more election analysis.)

On election eve, though, Board Vice Chairman John Tedesco issued a dire warning to his Republican base that unless their party retained its 5-4 board majority, Tata was toast and so was his plan.

Tedesco, a tea party devotee who was not facing re-election, pointed via Twitter to what he said was a story in The News & Observer indicating the Democrats' anti-Tata sentiments. Followers who clicked on the link were taken instead to a Facebook entry (which contained its own links to several irrelevant N&O blog posts) titled "SAVE Superintendent Tata & Our Schools." Author unknown, but clearly not a Democrat.

This was the gist of the Republicans' campaign in the closing days: Dump us and you'll be dumping Tata.

The truth, however, is that the Democratic candidates and Wake County Democratic Chair Mack Paul took every opportunity to say how pleasantly surprised they've been by Tata since he took his post in February.

The Democrats' message seemed to be: Dump the Republicans and you'll be backing Tata.

Tata, a former Army general with just 18 months' experience in public education, was hired by the Republican majority after former Superintendent Del Burns quit in protest over Tedesco & co.'s anti-diversity policies.

Democrats assumed, as Paul later wrote, that Tata, because he'd worked as a talking head for Fox News and expressed a preference for Sarah Palin over Barack Obama, "would fit perfectly into the board majority's efforts to take the school system in an ideological direction."

But six months in, Paul wrote in mid-August, Tata had succeeded in calming the uproar over student assignment: "Reframing this divisive issue, Tata has offered plans with greater flexibility and choice. He also made access to high-achieving schools a key element of the plans up for discussion. Implicit in this position is the fundamental principle that all children must have access to a good school regardless of the affluence of their community."

Regardless of affluence? That's Tata's oft-stated intention, which was supported by the Democrats. But it's not what the Republican candidates were running on, especially Board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who was steadfast in supporting "neighborhood schools" whether the neighborhoods are rich or poor.

Tata always describes his plan as having four equally sturdy legs: choice, stability, proximity and student achievement—the last one his method for retaining diversity and avoiding the creation of high-poverty, or have- and have-not schools.

Margiotta, in a debate two weeks ago with opponent Susan Evans, said clearly—twice—that his version of Tata's plan has just three legs: choice, stability and proximity. The achievement leg was sawed off.

If the five Democratic candidates won on Tuesday, taking control of the school board by their own 5-4 majority, Tata's plan will be built with four legs and have a chance of fulfilling the principle of equal access to good schools that Paul, citing Tata, espoused.

If the Republicans retained control, though, Tata's plan seems fated to have just three legs, with a shaky "choice" leg at that. So when Wake's growth lands on it, it'll fall over.

Tata's four-legged plan is similar to the controlled-choice idea proposed a year ago by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership, helped by Cambridge, Mass., consultant Michael Alves. It calls for parents to choose their children's schools from a list of nearby options rather than—as has been done for many years—having the school system assign most students to a school.

The beauty of controlled choice is that students aren't reassigned once they're in a school. This is the so-called stability leg: Once a student's in a school, he or she is guaranteed to stay in that school through its highest grade level (K–5, 6–8, 9–12) unless the parents make a different choice.

From 2006–11, Tata says, Wake's explosive growth and incessant need to fill new schools caused an average of 7,236 students a year to be reassigned, some of them more than once. (Wake's total student population is about 146,000, in 165 schools.) The constant reassignments angered many parents, especially in high-growth suburbs like Wake Forest and Apex, leading to the Republican takeover in the 2009 elections.

In the next 10 years, Tata says, Wake is projected to add 54,000 additional students and build 30 more schools. Without a shift in assignment methods, another 70,000 students could be reassigned in that period, an approach Tata calls unsustainable.

By contrast, when Tata gave his plan a "test drive" with parents, 94 percent said they would choose to keep their kids in their present schools rather than apply to move them. If that proves to be the case, most parents will be satisfied with controlled choice, at least for the first few years.

But if students aren't reassigned, how will the new schools be filled? The answer, from Tata's presentation to the board, is slowly and with volunteers, with new K–5 schools initially having just grades K–2, for example, and perhaps not a full complement of them.

Leaving a building half-full or less for a period of years is presumably more costly to taxpayers than reassigning students to fill it up immediately—especially in a school system chronically strapped for space.

Then there's the issue of have- and have-not schools. As Tata's plan stands, parents choose from a list of at least five nearby elementary schools, with feeder patterns that lead from every elementary school to a designated middle school and high school. All elementary school lists are supposed to contain nearby year-round schools, traditional-calendar schools and a high-performing school—based on student test results—that may or may not be close to home.

Parents in the low-income neighborhoods of Southeast Raleigh surrounding the 13 magnet schools (which include eight elementary magnets) would be given a list with two high-performing schools, nearly all of which are distant from Southeast Raleigh.

That's because, to make room for "magnet" students who come from outside of Southeast Raleigh, about half of that area's kids must attend schools beyond their neighborhoods. If they don't, the magnet schools would fail and become "neighborhood schools" for students who are overwhelmingly black and poor, with low achievement levels.

Because there would be no forced reassignments, Southeast Raleigh kids who now attend suburban schools, including the high-performing schools, would be assured of remaining in them.

But as the years pass, these students will age out; meanwhile, the surrounding suburbs will grow. The question is, will the Southeast Raleigh kids have priority then over kids from the suburbs for seats in those suburban schools?

So far, the answer is no: Proximity trumps diversity (achievement) under Tata's plan.

Early on, Tata told the school board that to make the choice plan real for Southeast Raleigh kids, some set-aside seats—perhaps as many as 20 percent—should be reserved for them in the high-performing schools. But with Margiotta and the Republicans openly hostile to that idea, Tata hasn't pressed the point, and there are no set-aside seats in his plan.

Even earlier, the Wake Education Partnership and Alves said that every school should be held to a minimum standard of student achievement that, for example, would expect that no school would be allowed to fall below 70 percent in the number of its students scoring at grade level on reading and math tests.

Such a standard should be built into the choice process, they said, to assure that no school becomes overloaded with low-achieving students, thus turning it into a have-not school populated only by kids whose low-income parents have no other, better choice.

Failure to include such a student achievement "leg" along with proximity, stability and choice could doom the choice plan, they warned, and lead to the bad outcome Charlotte-Mecklenburg's schools experienced when they abandoned their diversity assignment policy a decade ago.

In Charlotte, the inner-city schools gradually emptied, forcing the district to close 10 of them this year. Meanwhile, schools in the suburbs filled to overflowing, forcing expensive new school construction even as the older buildings were let go.

Creating high-poverty schools, Tata often says, is not just a bad idea but a very expensive one, forcing extra spending to repair the damage that could've been avoided in the first place had all schools been equal—and diverse.

When you see how the elections came out, you'll know if the school board is following his lead.

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