by Bob Geary
I wrote a column in this week's Indy about the challenges to public education in Wake County and North Carolina. At The News & Observer, one of their blogger-reporters picked it up, characterizing it as "firing shots" at the Blue plan for student assignment in Wake. Whereupon I heard from several people who asked, "I thought you were for the Blue plan?"
The short answer is, I am. So far, anyway. I fired no "shots" at the Blue plan. I did raise questions about it because it's clear to me, as I said in the column, that the Blue plan is what we have to work with — it's what Superintendent Tony Tata intends to recommend to the Wake school board on June 21, and unless there's a mutiny by the board majority, it's what the board will endorse.
Even if I preferred the Green Plan, which I don't for reasons I'll explain below, it's not really on the table. If it were, I'd raise similar questions about it. In fact, the whole point of the column is that both plans, as well as the education wars at the General Assembly, are rooted in a pretty toxic political environment that makes progress — well, my motto is, it's still possible. But it's not getting any easier.
Given the realities of the moment, Tata's Blue option is about as good as we could've hoped for — in concept. The task now is to make sure that when it's put into action, it works as well as it can.
The fact is, I've started and discarded several blog posts on the subject of the Blue plan vs. the Green plan. All of them lacked conviction, however, which as William Butler Yeats famously said is disastrous whenever chaos is at hand, the center is coming apart and "the worst are full of passionate intensity."
My problem? Blue vs. Green is far from a clear-cut choice.
I've got great conviction, though, when it comes to believing that our public schools are the linchpin if we're ever going to live up to our national creed — that all persons are created equal, with unalienable rights to life, liberty and happiness, and that is to "secure these rights [that] Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
That's why Governments are instituted. That's why governments going back to the Pilgrims in Massachusetts instituted public ("common") schools.
Kids from all backgrounds attending schools together is, to me, an ideal. You sit beside a kid whose parents are poor and yours are well-off and you can't help thinking, Is this fair? Should something be done to make us more equal? That's how it starts ... democracy, that is. That's how, in Yeats' terms, the center is strengthened.
That's what my column was about. We've never really achieved equal educational opportunity in this country. We've segregated our kids by race, and then when the U.S. Supreme Court struck that down, we started segregating them by income—in well-off suburban schools and impoverished inner-city schools. Still, the trend since the mid-20th century was in the direction of greater equality, more mixing, more diversity and a higher degree of fairness to all.
It was the trend, that is, as long as the American economy was growing and more people were sharing in its bounty. But since 2000 — since 9/11, the Bush recession, tax cuts for the rich, the Wall Street Meltdown and now, the Great Recession — the economy isn't growing and people, consequently, are pulling back.
Unwilling to share more equally in what they perceive is a shrinking American Pie, folks lately are in a hoarding mode. They want what's theirs, never mind anyone else. And there's no George Bailey to persuade them that if only they'd share and share alike, everybody would be better off.
And as they retrench, parents want their own schools for their own kids. Charter schools if they can get them. Regular public schools if they can't — but if they have be regular schools, they should be charter-like in the sense that they give "my" children a leg up over "other" children whose educational needs may be greater, but I can't be concerned about them just now.
This, at its core, is what the great debate in Wake over student assignment policies is about. The "old" diversity supporters (the N&O loves to label them old) were the George Baileys of the county, telling people that if they'd give a little to support a
strong Building & Loan a strong school system, every school would benefit and every child too. This required some degree of personal sacrifice, however, in the sense that not every child could attend the exact school the parents wanted them to attend. Some were asked to move to another school to enhance the overall mix.
A "neighborhood schools" model, on the other hand, will result in "good" schools and "bad" schools, and I don't really think I need to spell out why that is. But in the Great Recession, as folks pull back and insist on getting theirs, many in the "good" neighborhoods are listening, not to George Bailey, but to Mr. Potter, who wants them to pull
their money their children out of the venerable Building & Loan the venerable county system. Remember Potter's advice: Do be afraid; and, Don't let yourself get mixed up with those "losers" from the wrong side of town.
So now to the question of Blue vs. Green: Which will be better in terms of maintaining a healthy mix (aka, diversity) of students in every school?
Which will better at staving off the creation of high-poverty schools in low-income neighborhoods, in particular the low-income neighborhoods of Raleigh?
At first blush, the answer is as Jim Martin, a member of the Great Schools in Wake (GSIW) coalition, said at the public forum at Athens Drive HS last week: Either plan could work well if executed well and given sufficient resources.
If you've read this far, I'd assume you know what the Blue and Green plans are, at least in outline form. If not, GSIW has a short description in its newsletter. For more detail, go to the Wake County Public School System's special website.
GSIW, in a statement last week, analyzed both plans and concluded, based on what we know now, that the Green plan "offers the best chance to get it right."
For a year and a half, GSIW has stood strong against the worst inclinations of the new school board majority and in favor of a strong school system that serves all children well. I have the greatest respect for its leaders and, for that matter, I can't think of any members I wouldn't say the same about. That said, I'm aware that not every GSIW member is pro-Green. Some are pro-Blue. I've talked to several of each persuasion. I've been back and forth on my own initial preference for Blue.
The way I see it, the Green plan is probably the better one if it's in the hands of a school board committed to equal opportunity and a strong school system. In the hands of a board itching to deliver "neighborhood schools" to the suburbs, though, and unconcerned about whether high-poverty schools are left behind in Raleigh, the Green plan is a big ol' hammer just waiting to be pounded.
Supporters of the Green plan think it's much like the traditional assignment policy, only it's an improved version that would eliminate the problem of some kids being reassigned multiple times in the space of a few years. Also, every student would be offered a "base" school assignment with the option of shifting from a traditional-calendar school to a year-round school if they preferred — or vice versa. No more problems with the dreaded "MYR" (mandatory year-round assignments, which while rare were headline-grabbbers).
All true, but the Green Plan is not as good as the traditional policy in one critical respect. Under the old policy, some "nodes" (geographic units) were shifted to maintain diverse student populations in all schools. The nodes are known commodities in terms of family incomes. (That is, the number of students in each node who are eligible, because of low family income, for a free or reduced lunch is an exact, known figure.) Thus, using nodes and the F&R data made it easy to see whether socioeconomic balance was being maintained from year to year. [N.B. I said it was easy to see: Exploding growth in Wake made it easy to see that socioeconomic balance was not being maintained in every school; on the other hand, correcting that problem by moving nodes was never easy.]
In the Green Plan, however, the goal isn't to balance student populations by income levels. It's to balance them by student achievement: No school is supposed to fall 10 percent or more below the system average in terms of overall student proficiency. (The 10 percent would be measured by End-of-Course testing and the like.)
But here's the thing: You're only going to know that a school is slipping — i.e., has become a "bad" school — after the fact. Indeed, if I read the Green plan right, it would be three years before a school, having slipped behind, would be deemed to "need" more high-achieving students.
Well, guess what? Parents of high-achieving students are not going to sit by quietly while their kids are assigned to demonstrably "bad" schools. They are going to lobby the hell out of the school board to get their way. And this Wake school board majority (I'm thinking now of Donald Rumsfeld's observation that you go to war with the
school board army you have, not the army you want) has already shown itself very willing to move nodes in ways that decrease diversity but satisfy their supporters in the suburbs.
Maybe the 2011 elections will produce a sweep of all five seats by GSIW-friendly, diversity-friendly, good school system-friendly candidates, in which case a new 5-4 board majority would be able to wield the Green plan responsibly. But number one, I wouldn't count on a sweep. Even if pro-diversity candidates hold the four seats they have now, winning that fifth one away from Ron Margiotta in Southwest Wake isn't going to be easy. And even in the event of a sweep, the politics of school assignment were changed dramatically in the '09 elections for the simple reason that the demographics of the county have changed: The tremendous population growth at the outer edges of the county means the balance of voting power is now and for the foreseeable future in the 'burbs.
In short, I don't think we need an assignment policy that swings wildly with the latest election returns but which is ultimately going to reflect the voting strength of the suburbs.
I think, instead, we need to find a middle ground that protects the system while also honoring as much as possible the wishes of suburban parents for schools that, if not right up the street, are at least not an hour's bus ride away — and aren't subject to continual reassignment.
Enter the Blue plan.
Following the '09 elections, leaders at the Wake Education Partnership and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce recognized that the county was in danger of coming apart over student assignments ... and that if it did, it would be a very bad thing for Wake's and Raleigh's reputations as up-and-coming places of enlightenment in the New South economy.
Indeed, the pitched warfare between Margiotta's ham-handed majority and defenders of a strong system has made national headlines, and not in a good way. The other day, national data came out showing Wake County 3rd from the top in graduation results among the nation's 50 largest school districts. The only better ones, in Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA, spend far more — 40-50% more per student — than Wake does. Wake's system is strong. But you'd never know that listening to Margiotta or his board consigliere, John Tedesco. To hear them tell it, they were riding to the rescue of failing schools.
Searching for that middle ground, WEP and the GRCC brought in a Cambridge, MA consultant, Michael Alves, who specializes in controlled-choice assignment plans. Alves drew one up for Wake and presented it in February.
In the meantime, the school board majority hired a new superintendent, Tony Tata, who prior to arrival was suspect in progressive circles for saying good things abouit Sarah Palin, but who has since planted himself squarely in the political middle on the assignment issue by all but endorsing the Blue plan — which is modeled on the Alves plan.
The Blue plan is a controlled-choice plan. Parents get a list of schools to choose from, but they're not guaranteed that their children will be admitted to their first choice or even their second choice. Most, though, will get what they want if what they want is a school not far from home.
To avoid the problem of high-poverty schools in Raleigh's poorest neighborhoods, the magnet schools would be retained and presumably would continue to draw suburban kids by choice and "base" kids — by choice now rather than by assignment — in roughly the same numbers as currently. If that is indeed the case, then 9,000 other "base" kids for whom there's no room in the magnets will need seats designated for them in other schools that are not in low-income neighborhoods.
Tata's Blue plan promises that "a set percentage of seats" will be reserved in such schools for kids coming from the low-income neighborhoods. The "set percentage" is undefined. It needs to be defined.
In fact, Tata's worried aloud about creating a "splash zone" of schools just outside the high-poverty neighborhoods if too many of the kids coming from them decide they don't want to travel very far. He's pledging that every such student will be offered the choice of a "high-achieving" school somewhere — achievement, once again, being defined as students doing well on tests. A big worry in the GSIW ranks is that too many kids will pass up that choice because their parents won't be as engaged in the choice process as, say, the archetypal suburban soccer mom-parent.
Avoiding a splash zone, designating enough seats in good schools for kids from low-income neighborhoods, and encouraging them to choose the good schools — even to the point of making such choices the default for them — is all critical to making the Blue plan work. The good news is, I'm not the only one saying this. Tata is saying it too.
Ultimately, whether the Blue plan produces sufficient balance will depend on the "control" aspect of controlled-choice. A formula will be developed using proximity to a school, whether your siblings go to the school, and the student's level of achievement (or, for entering kindergarteners, a proxy based on the educational attainments of the neighborhood) as factors for deciding who gets their first-choice school, who gets their second-choice and so on.
The weighting for each factor in the formula is key. Proximity and stability can't be allowed to simply trump student achievement in every case or else Wake's schools will quickly become unbalanced — and the ones with too many "bad" students won't be on anybody's choice list.
The weighting in the formula will be subject to tinkering by the school board, yes. But in the first instance, it will be a staff product — Tata and his staff will recommend it, and they'll be the ones to use it.
Tata has smartly called upon the school staff he inherited to develop the Blue plan, the Green plan and some others that didn't "make the cut." This is a staff that prides itself on being part of one of the best school systems in the country, a level of quality reached in good measure because of their long-standing commitment to balance and diversity.
From what I observe, Tata trusts them and they seem to trust him to keep the system strong and, I would add, assure that Tony Tata's first school leadership gig is a winning one.
Bottom line, I expect the Blue plan to be staff-directed to a much greater extent than the Green plan would be. For years, we've watched school boards move "nodes" — the "old" boards did it with good intentions, while this board's intentions were, uh, different — but the point is, if you want to create pure neighborhood schools, a node system is the simplest way to do it.
In contrast, a properly constructed controlled-choice plan will put control in Tata's hands, for better or worse. I'm thinking it'll be better.