by Bob Geary
It's January 17 and the new student assignment plan — Superintendent Tony Tata's version of controlled-choice — starts today still missing a strong diversity component. In fact, the plan is unchanged from what it was in October, when it was adopted by the old Republican school board majority, which passed it after lopping off the diversity element that Tata floated but didn't actually propose.
Nor is this a new problem. From the get-go two years ago, it's been understood that a controlled-choice plan won't work unless the four "pillars" of stability, proximity, choice and diversity (as measured by achievement) are equally strong. If any of the pillars are weak, controlled-choice guru Michael Alves told us, the plan won't be fair to low-income neighborhoods and kids.
In the plan going forward, the diversity pillar is weak to the point of collapse.
You'll recall that Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton, then in the minority, voted against the Tata plan in October because it lacked a sufficient diversity standard.
Now, after toppling the Republicans in the fall elections, Hill and Sutton are the board chair and vice chair, respectively, installed by a 5-4 pro-diversity majority.
And yet, the new majority — Hill, Sutton, and the three newly elected members, Susan Evans, Christine Kushner and Jim Martin — has taken no action to strengthen the plan since assuming office seven weeks ago.
Looking over my notes from the two work sessions held by the school board on Jan. 3 and Jan. 10, I'm struck by the lack of cohesion among the five pro-diversity members. They're clearly not on the same page. But that's not the problem so much as it is the fact that they don't seem to be making much of an effort to get on the same page — i.e., to reach a consensus among themselves about how to move diversity forward.
The five majority members appear to be split between two different diversity approaches. (More on this below.)
OK, but if they all continue to insist that they get their way, nothing will happen — because there's only five of them, and the four Republicans won't give them a vote for anything.
So, to repeat, the majority must come together.
Complicating things is the Open Meetings Law, which bars the five of them from meeting privately to thrash out a common position. To meet together, the five — because they are a majority — must hold a public session. Or else, one of them must be the leader and engage in shuttle diplomacy with the others.
At their public sessions on Jan. 3 and Jan. 10, the five demonstrated little ability to control their own agenda, allowing the Republican members, especially Debra Goldman, to filibuster them to distraction with all manner of issues other than diversity.
Which is not to blame Ms. Goldman.
Now, the majority is under the gun. The first round of the assignment plan goes from Jan. 17 to Feb. 24. Pro-diversity changes must be made before Feb. 24, or they'll come too late to matter, at least for the 2012-13 school year.
The board has a work session scheduled next Tuesday — time TBA — and two in February on Feb. 7 and Feb. 21. But the Feb. 7 regular meeting is the only official session on tap between now and the end of round-one assignment choices on Feb. 24. That's not to say the board couldn't schedule additional meetings. It is to say that the majority needs to get itself in gear.
The issue the new majority has thus far not resolved is what to do about the "structurally displaced" kids (Tata's term) from low-income neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh. They're displaced by the fact that half or more of the seats in SE Raleigh's magnet schools are reserved for magnet students coming from other, more affluent places. To maintain diverse student bodies in the magnets, therefore, about half of SE Raleigh's kids go to school elsewhere in the county — and by doing so, they may augment diversity in their "elsewhere" schools.
Which begs the question, where exactly is "elsewhere" for the displaced students?
If they end up in the same handful of so-called rim schools, the schools closest to Southeast Raleigh that aren't magnets, the result will be a disproportionate number of low-income students in those schools; then, if the history of other school systems with "good" and "bad" schools is any guide, the rim schools will be deemed "bad" (i.e., high-poverty) schools — and the downward spiral of abandonment via controlled-choice will be underway.
The issue centers on 750-800 Southeast Raleigh kindergarten students who must be displaced. That's because:
1) Under the Tata plan, all other students are "grandfathered" in their current schools or in designated feeder-pattern schools unless they want to change; kindergarteners, though, don't have a current school;
2) Under the plan, kindergarten is the nearest thing to destiny. Once in kindergarten, a student is assured of never being reassigned to a different elementary school and also assured that, from their elementary school, they'll go to a designated middle school and high school unless they apply — via controlled-choice — to go somewhere else. (Or, at least, that's the promise of the Tata plan. Whether it will hold together over the years is a very good question.)
To avoid having all 800 Southeast Raleigh kindergarteners land in the same handful of rim schools, two different approaches have been offered:
1) The straightforward one is to establish set-aside seats in other, so-called Regional Choice schools that aren't close to Southeast Raleigh and do have high achievement levels. This is Tata's plan, and it seems to be the approach Hill and Sutton favor.
2) The less direct method is to change the priority ranking system under the choice plan so the displaced Southeast Raleigh students have a better chance of being accepted into a Regional Choice or other desirable school when they apply. Kushner, Evans and possibly Martin seem to be headed this way.
About the latter option:
Under the choice plan as it stands — the Republican plan, in other words — if a school has more applicants than seats available, first preference goes to grandfathered students, second to siblings of current students, and third to students who live closest to the school. Displaced Southeast Raleigh kids are at the bottom of the barrel.
In public comment at the Jan. 10 meeting, Sanderson High School parent Anne Sherron, a diversity proponent, suggested thinking of displaced students the same way you'd want an airline to think about you, the displaced passenger. If you were bumped off one flight because it was overbooked, Sherron said, you'd certainly expect to be given top priority on the next flight — not put at the bottom of the list and bumped again.
It's only fair, Sherron said, that the displaced ("bumped") students go to the top of the list of applicants for scarce seats in good schools.
Tata, though, recommended the set-aside approach, mainly because — as his assignment task force chief James Overman said — designating a specific number of seats (say, up to 15 percent of available seats) in each of several schools would preclude the possibility that a lot of displaced kids would apply and get into the same one or two schools. With preference and with no controls, Overman said, low-income students could overwhelm a school.
it seemed to me the two approaches could be married — with displaced students getting top priority up to a 15 percent limit. The combination wouldn't differ much from a 15 percent set-aside approach, but it could read differently to a potential applicant to be given priority in an assignment system ... rather than handed a set-aside seat.
Whatever the actual difference, Republican board member John Tedesco is taking every opportunity to call any set-aside approach a "quota system," a racially loaded term well-known in the South. Interestingly, majority member Jim Martin says he agrees with Tedesco that set-asides are too "quota-like." But what Martin would do instead is unclear. (And to adopt anything else would require that the majority tangle with Tata, a formidable task unless they're united.)
On Jan. 10, the board scheduled four hours for its work session, with most of it supposed to be devoted to the assignment plan. But a good half of the four-hour window was eaten up instead by Debra Goldman, who belabored the subject of a private meeting the three new members (and Hill) had with consultant Alves as part of their orientation; questioned whether the majority should be in touch with each by email; objected to having the chair and vice chair meet in "leadership meetings" with the chair and vice chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners; and just generally went on about tangential issues. If she was trying to gum them up, she succeeded beautifully.
Finally, when the student assignment plan did come around on the agenda, much of the remaining time went by in a fruitless discussion of whether the Jan. 17 start date could or should be pushed back. Result: It wasn't.
The clock was ticking toward zero before diversity — which unbelievably came last on the list of student assignment topics for discussion — was even addressed. Which meant, of course, that the topic was rushed and disjointed.
Kushner had suggested the previous week that displaced kids be moved ahead of proximate kids in the choice priority system. This prompted objections from Goldman and Tedesco about kids not getting into their nearby neighborhood school. So Evans, as a compromise, proposed putting the displaced students and the proximate students on an equal footing, with a lottery to decide if there weren't enough seats for both.
Evans also lamented that this issue wasn't taken up with some urgency as soon as the board majority was seated in December. Check-mark for that.
Martin started spitballing ideas about giving extra resources to schools for successfully recruiting displaced students, which he said could be a "win-win" approach but which won no response at all from anybody.
Hill and Sutton, at the head of the table, listened passively, offering nothing.
And then they were all out of time, with the 5:30 regular meeting due to begin in a few minutesl leaving Hill to announce the obvious: The Tata plan would go ahead unchanged, and the board would "monitor and evaluate" its progress beginning Jan. 17.
Before the Jan. 10 meeting, I wrote that the majority should allow the assignment plan to go ahead as scheduled. Great Schools in Wake, a progressive coalition, was calling for delay, but I disagreed, saying it made no sense for the new board to pick a fight with Tata as their first order of business.
I wrote this, however, assuming that the new majority would act that day to adopt one or the other of the two competing pro-diversity approaches, or a blend of the two. It simply didn't occur to me that they would instead kick the diversity can down the road. But watch out when you assume, because it makes ... well, you know.
After the Jan. 10 work session ended and as the regular meeting began, Kushner told some of us informally, and then repeated for the record when the meeting started, that diversity can be addressed as the plan goes forward and parents start to make choices for their kids.
That's the case up to Feb. 24, certainly. Parents' choices begin today, but no seats will be assigned until the end of round one. And, yes, it may help the board majority to see, as the process unfolds, which schools are in high demand and which are not ... and which parents are eagerly engaged in this process, and which are not ... and whether Southeast Raleigh are engaged or not.
There's a fear that many low-income parents won't be engage at all, and that unless there are set-aside seats for their kids in desirable schools, the end result of the choice process will be that affluent, tech-savvy parents get their top choices for their kids ... while poor parents don't actually make a choice, leaving their kids with whatever's left over.
Leftover schools = high-poverty schools = a result the whole election was intended to avoid.