Wake school assignment plan v. 3: Return of the Jedi (or, Place Takes Base)

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In our first installment, a.k.a. the 2009 elections, the Republic came under attack by, er, Republicans, who soon overthrew the old regime of student assignments in Wake County's public schools. Diversity as a goal was out. Base assignments were out. Choice was in.

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In the sequel, the 2011 elections, the Republic struck back, ousting the Republican majority on the Wake school board. Base assignments were again in favor. Diversity too. Choice? OK, but not so much.

So now it's time for Version 3 of student assignment, which according to the new school board majority's directive, is supposed to have base assignments but also retain the good parts of the Republicans' choice plan. Shades of the Jedi warriors. ("Trust your feelings, Luke.")

An obvious question, going in, is how every student in Wake can be assigned to a base school when there are already students attending schools by choice that aren't going to be their base schools going forward. Wake has 150,000 students. It has capacity in its schools for not much more than 150,000 seats. So if every student gets a base assignment, that will require just about every available seat — and won't that leave many students who are in a school by choice out of luck?

The answer, in the staff proposal presented to the school board last night, is no. If base bumps up against place, place comes first.

So it's possible (likely?) that some students will be assigned to a base school only to find that they can't get in it when the time comes because the school is over-capacity as the result of a lot of grandfathered students who chose to stay plus the newly assigned base contingent.

If that happens, the luckless base students be presented with a list of available "overflow" options.

The fundamental principle of v.3 — call it the New Base Plan — is that if you like the school you're in, you're guaranteed the right to stay in it until you graduate.

It will help a great deal, however, that grandfathering was also a feature of V.2, the Choice Plan. Many students, that is, stayed in their old base school this year when given a choice. So if the new base school is the same as the old base school, then no problem-o.

Putting place ahead of base is "absolutely logical," as board member Susan Evans said, because to do the opposite — kick some students out so newly assigned students can take their place — would make an awful lot of parents most unhappy.

Indeed, the framework set out by Superintendent Tony Tata's team last night was very logical: 1) base assignments are made; 2) students declare whether they want the base assignment or to stay where they are; 3) a choice process follows for magnet schools and leadership academies; 4) transfer applications are entertained, with students allowed to apply to any school in the county that has space available, though admission isn't guaranteed nor is transportation necessarily going to be provided.

All the while, school officials would be re-assessing school capacities, according to a flexible standard. That is, when a school is at 100 percent of capacity, it would be considered full, but not stuffed. Full (a "partial cap") would mean it's closed to all but base-assigned students. Stuffed (a "full cap") would mean it's closed to any more students, period.

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So far, so good. It seems like a solid framework, one which such "diverse" board members as Jim Martin and Keith Sutton, on the majority side, and John Tedesco, Chris Malone and Debra Goldman, on the minority side, could all say they liked in general. In fact, every board member seemed to like it in general.

But if it's a good framework, it isn't — to this point anyway — a viable plan. Not yet.

For v.3 to be a plan, it needs a strong diversity element, which thus far it lacks. The staff proposal contains the germ of a diversity element, but it's only that — no details, no heft. Thus, we have the idea of base assignments, but we don't have a process for how we're going to make the base assignments.

Making the base assignments has always, always been the rub.

For that reason, the board majority — and in particular Evans, Martin and Christine Kushner — were right to stop the staff train before it raced into public hearings next week.

They were also right to insist that the policy framework be fleshed out — and the diversity piece given form — before parents are told what their base assignments might be.

Letting the staff publish its online list of base schools by addresses — a list that would be preliminary at best, if only because no board member has even seen it yet, let alone thought about all the ways it needs to be changed — would've been a serious blunder.

That was Tata's intention, apparently, to let parents start looking up their assignments on Friday.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse.

I'll talk more about the missing elements of v.3 in a subsequent post — working title: "Where's the beef?"

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