by Bob Geary
As Donald Rumsfeld might've said if asked by his former Army general and now Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want. And you work up a Wake student assignment plan with the school board you have, not necessarily the one you want or that'll give you the best outcome.
Thus we await the outcome of today's school board elections — on which the outcome of the two-year struggle over student assignment crucially depends. To put it simply, as the elections go, so goes the question of whether Wake will blunder into a set of high-poverty, low-achieving schools ... or avoid that fate.
Tata presented his assignment plan to the current, Republican-majority school board last Tuesday, and he asked for an up-or-down vote on it at the Oct. 18 board meeting. In between, a single public hearing was scheduled for this Thursday, October 13 at Broughton High School in Raleigh. It starts at 5 p.m.
The "choice" plan Tata presented puts parents in the first position on student assignments, with the school system at the rear. This would reverse the longstanding practice of the system assigning students except where parents choose a magnet school or ask for and receive a transfer.
In Tata's plan, the old practice of annual reassignments to fill new schools would go away. In its place, new schools would open — expensively — with many classrooms empty. Many, even most of the students attending them would be from families new to the county (whose choices could soon be severely limited) or families who've moved within the county to a neighborhood where the other schools are full.
And Tata's plan has a huge hole in it where equity/diversity in student assignments should be. I'm writing a piece for this week's Indy about the plan, and it will appear in the paper when it comes out tomorrow morning. But this is that awkward week in which we come out on Wednesday — the day after Election Day — having gone to press the previous evening before we know the election results.
So here's a preview of what I will say tomorrow:
If the Republicans hold or expand their 5-4 majority in today's elections, Tata's plan will continue to have a hole in it, because Republican School Board Chair Ron Margiotta & Co. want that hole to remain.
If, however, Margiotta falls in the District 8 race against challenger Susan Evans, and if that results in a 5-4 majority against the Republicans (meaning that incumbent Kevin Hill survives his challenge in District 3 from Republican Heather Losurdo), then the hole in Tata's plan can be filled by a new board — as Tata, if I understand him correctly, wants it to be filled.
Indeed, Tata emphasized in a meeting with reporters on Friday that he ended his presentation to the board with a list of issues still to be determined, and foremost among them is the question of how to assure equity and avoid the creation of high-poverty schools.
I watched a bit of the election eve coverage on television last night. The takeaway seemed to be that if the Republicans win, Tata's plan will be approved, but if they don't, his plan coulld die because the Democratic candidates don't like it.
This is fundamentally inaccurate. If the Republicans win, Tata's plan will be left incomplete. If they don't, and the Democrats win, the plan will be finished — improved — and then adopted. That's my view of it, anyway.
The crucial difference is between a "choice" plan that has a good chance of serving Wake well in the years ahead and one that, if the Republicans are in charge of it, is destined to split the county into "have" and "have-not" schools, with the latter proliferating in Raleigh and eastern Wake County.
When Charlotte-Mecklenburg went the Republican route a decade ago, the result — after a few years lull — was overcrowded schools in the suburbs and older, inner-city schools abandoned to the point that, this year, 10 were shut down. (The superintendent wanted 20 of them closed.)
Unequal schools are expensive — as Tony Tata can't say enough times.
Remember that a successful choice plan — or as it's often termed, a controlled-choice plan — is supposed to rest on four legs. One is stability. Two is proximity. Three is choice. Four is student achievement.
So said the Wake Education Partnership when it introduced the controlled-choice idea to us a year ago as a potential compromise in the student assignment wars. So said Michael Alves, the controlled-choice guru, when the WEP and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce brought him to town. So said Tata himself when, after the Republicans hired him, he adopted the controlled-choice approach.
All agreed, it isn't just that the plan has four elements. It's that the four — think of the four legs on a chair — are equally important and must be equally sturdy. If one leg is weak, the plan will topple eventually. If one isn't there at all, the plan won't stand in the first place.
In Tata's plan — as in Alves' framework — the stability leg is strong. Students who are in a school now are guaranteed that they can stay in the school until they age out of it, unless their parents make a different choice. Siblings of students in a school are guaranteed admission to that school.
Ditto the proximity leg. Students living with 1 1/2 miles of a school get in unless the school is over capacity. Students are guaranteed admission to a nearby elementary school (one of the five closest), a nearby middle school (one of two) and a nearby high school (one of two), unless they apply and are admitted to a magnet school.
Ditto the choice leg. Every student is offered a menu of year-round and traditional-calendar choices and magnet-school choices. Some won't get their first choice. But if the system works, virtually all will get their first or second choice.
While those three legs are strong, however, the student achievement leg is weak. Very weak.
The student achievement leg is the one that is supposed to assure that Wake County has no bad schools, no schools burdened with too many low-achieving, high-needs students. This is the equity/diversity leg by a different name and a different measure. Wake County formerly balanced student bodies by race, achieving integrated schools. Later, it balanced them by socioeconomic status and student achievement levels, achieving integrated schools.
Now, the Republican school board has dropped both socioeconomic status and student achievement levels from Policy 6200, the one governing student assignments; but Tata proposed to bring back student achievement as part of his controlled-choice plan.
In this election, though, Margiotta wouldn't hear of it. In his debate with Evans, he refused to acknowledge even that a controlled-choice plan has four elements, naming only three: Stability, proximity and choice. This explains why Tata's plan has just three strong elements even Tata himself has been clear that it needs four.
How, ideally, would the student-achievement element be executed in practice? When Alves and the WEP first discussed controlled-choice, they suggested a floor be set for student achievement levels in every school. If, for example, 80 percent of Wake's students score at grade level on reading and math tests, the floor for every school might be set at 70 percent.
If a school drops below that number, then some low-achieving students would be reassigned to other schools and some high-achieving students enticed? assigned? to replace them. Extra resources would be applied to the school to lift student performance. No school would be permitted to flounder.
There is no such standard in Tata's plan.
Tata himself proposed giving every student who lives in a magnet-school neighborhood in Southeast Raleigh— by definition, a poor neighborhood — the choice of attending a high-performing school elsewhere in Raleigh or the rest of the county. He suggested that as many as 20 percent of the seats in these high-performing schools might need to be "set aside" so the kids from Southeast Raleigh who apply actually get in.
(Remember, to make room for "magnet" students from outside Southeast Raleigh, about half the "base" population living around the magnet schools must go elsewhere. The question is whether the "elsewhere" schools will be high-performing or simply the next-nearest schools that will soon be overloaded with kids from poor neighborhoods who are, on average, lower-achieving. Hence, the creation of a "have-not" school.)
But in Tata's plan, there are no set-aside seats in the high-performing schools, and in fact the definition of a high-performing school has been rewritten so that more schools meet it — including schools far from Southeast Raleigh. This allows Tata to say, as he did at his press briefing Friday, that there's no need for set-asides because the high-performing schools have plenty of capacity to accept Southeast Raleigh applicants.
That may be true now. And with Tata's "test drive" of controlled-choice indicating that in year one 94 percent of students will stay in their current schools, it may be true for a year or two. But will it be true as the suburban neighborhoods around these high-performing schools continue to grow, and meanwhile the students from Southeast Raleigh who are already in a suburban school because of the old diversity policy are aging out and leaving?
Tata, early on, also discussed the need to strongly encourage Southeast Raleigh parents to choose the high-performing school(s) on their choice lists — including reaching out to parents who have little or no involvement with their kids' schools in the first place. All such talk has ceased.
The reason? Margiotta wants no set-asides. He wants neighborhood schools for the suburbs — upscale schools — and neighborhood schools for the inner-city. The word diversity is like a cuss word to him. And so far, pending the outcome of today's elections, Margiotta is running the school board.