Tata on student assignment, budget: Stay "between the ditches"

Posted by Bob Geary on Fri, Apr 29, 2011 at 1:28 PM

Our Tata cover in January
  • Our Tata cover in January
Friday mornings at 9, Tony Tata briefs the press about the Wake County school system in a format much like, I imagine, a military press briefing from his olden days in the Army. Topics this morning included Tata's progress toward a new student assignment plan and his assessment of the damage in store for the schools if the House Republicans' budget should prevail in the General Assembly.

Discussing student assignment, Tata let loose with an old military metaphor — he's trying to position his plan "between the ditches." In the middle of the road, in other words.

Discussing the budget, Tata hewed to a center line as well, urging GOP House leaders to cut less from K-12 education but turning aside the question of whether the Wake County Commissioners, also under GOP control, should consider putting more $$$ into the county's schools.

***

On the budget, Tata said he will meet with Wake legislators next week, perhaps accompanied by some school board members, to ask that the 8.8 percent cuts to K-12 education contained in the House Republicans' budget be pared back. Tata's own budget, which he's recommending the school board adopt for the time being, assumed a 5 percent cut in state funding — the number in Gov. Bev Perdue's budget plan. Round numbers, a 5 percent cut equals $40 million less from the state for Wake; 8.8 percent would push the total reduction to more than $70 million.

However the House budget comes out, Tata said, the Senate may change it and/or it could change in negotiations with Perdue.

Hey, the Senate's cut might be just 2 percent, Tata said, only semi-facetiously. "That'd be nice, right?"

Interesting take from a guy who, before he arrived here from Washington, said Sarah Palin was better-qualified than Barack Obama to be president. Gotta be a right-winger, yes? So far, on education issues anyway, he isn't. "These budget cuts [are] very severe" and may require cutting teachers, "not a place we want to be," Tata said. "We cannot balance the budget on the backs of our children."

Tata, in fact, made a compelling case for the importance of teaching assistants in the early grades. The House budget would lop $26 million from TA funding on top of a 25 percent cut to TA aid from two years ago. The Republicans' idea, if you can call it that, is that TA's aren't needed in second grade, only in kindergarten and first grade. Tata said, on the contrary, they fill three important roles: (1) remedial time with students who need it, and extra attention for students who are ahead of the class and need a challenge; (2) helping kids bond with their teachers and the school system itself, which if you think about it is the prerequisite for kids to do well in school whatever their grade; and (3) help with clerical duties so teachers can concentrate on the professional end of their job — the teaching.

He also gets it that drivers education is not some frill or extra that should be parsed out to teenagers on the basis of their parent's wallet size. Learning to drive — with focus, no distractions, defensively — is fundamental to becoming a teenager, he said. Not to mention that the rest of us are out there driving with them.

The House budget would cut chop $1.1 million from Wake's driver-ed funding with a recommendation that the kids pay $75 each to make up for it. Tata said if the cuts to driver-ed stick, Wake's school board should consider absorbing the cost rather than making kids — or their parents — dig for the money.

Tata also noted that the county commissioners have given the same amount of money to the school board for two years running and plan to do the same for 2011-12, notwithstanding the steady growth in student enrollments. The result is that per-student funding from the county is nose-diving. Time for the commissioners to do better by the kids? "I don't know that there's additional funding to be had from the county," Tata side-stepped.

There is, of course, if the Paul Coble-led commissioners could bring themselves to utter the words "property tax increase." But the four Republicans ran on the ditty that "Coble-Bryan-Gurley-Matthews ... would not raise taxes." (Leaving us humming the tune, "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio Bryan?")

***

On his forthcoming student assignment plan, it's not quite as forthcoming as I thought. Tata's been sharing concepts with school board members in closed-door meetings, which led me to think he was about to roll out a plan. Not quite. It will be two more weeks at least before we see his proposal, he said, and when we do, it's going to take the form of two or three options.

That mid-June date he's been giving for recommending a plan to the school board may, in fact, be a starting point for the formal consideration of options, Tata said, not the finish line for a particular plan.

Tata said his working group is still looking at nine options and ranking them according to 18 criteria. He plans to share all nine, and the rankings, on a website that will go live in mid-May. Public comment to follow, plus stakeholder meetings, public meetings — and there is an election coming in October.

Best case, from what I heard, is that a public consensus forms in favor of a single plan (or a single concept, anyway, with variations on the details) over the summer and is ratified, in effect, by the election of school board candidates who support it too.

Here's the salient point from what Tata said today. He's looking for a plan in the center of the road. The "center stripe," he said, is stability of student assignments. Minimize reassignments, in other words.

The plan should also stay out of the ditches, he said. The ditches are:

* On the one side, a plan that torpedoes student achievement by — well, one way it could that is by creating high-poverty schools; Tata says his working group has looked deeply into the research showing that high-poverty schools are a recipe for bad results;

* On the other side, the plan could be too expensive — it could leave some schools unfilled, for instance, or run up busing costs by giving parents too many far-flung choices.

The nine plans under consideration range from pure neighborhood schools, with base assignments, at one end; and at the other, pure choice — no assignments. Given those two extremes, Tata said, "where we are right now ... is right in the middle." And they're still, he emphasized, at a conceptual "powerpoint level" — details TBD.

A successful plan, Tata added, needs to be acceptable to the community and consistent with the school board's revised Policy 6200 — the longstanding student assignment policy minus (courtesy of the new school board majority) its formal diversity standard.

Bottom line: Don't even think about taking the summer off.

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