by Bob Geary
Well, fellow Wake County citizens, we're down to it on Tony Tata's student assignment plan, a controlled-choice plan with no base assignments for students:
Is it a go, or a no-go, for the 2012-13 school year?
The new school board, when it meets today, can:
1) retain the plan as is;
2) retain it, but with one or two fundamental and easily executed changes that would improve it greatly while still allowing it to go ahead for 2012-13;
3) delay it, either for a year or indefinitely, so that confusion would reign as to whether it would still be used next year or any year;
4) scrap it and muddle through for 2012-13 while searching for a different solution for 2013-14 et. seq.
5) delay a decision — but remember, the plan was adopted in October by the old (i.e., the Republican-majority) school board, and it remains in place unless some other action is taken.
Under the plan as it exists, parents have already applied for magnet school seats. The choice process for all other schools (Round 1 of two scheduled rounds) begins January 17.
After the new school board's work session on the plan last week, I concluded that the likely outcome was No. 2. Since then, the Great Schools in Wake group has come out for delay, ripping the plan as incomplete and a ploy to obscure the important issues of school assignment in a fog of marketing double talk. GSIW's members are dedicated and smart. One, Susan Evans, is now on the board. Evans was elected in October with Jim Martin and Christine Kushner, who are attentive to GSIW if not officially aligned with it. In short, GSIW's critique will be taken very seriously.
Raleigh attorney Neil Reimann issued a brief rebuttal on his authoritative Wake Reassignment blog. It's definitely worth a read. (I should note, Reimann is a neighbor of mine in Cameron Park, and I'd love to take credit for his work on this subject over the last two years, but he's always way ahead of me.)
Delaying the plan would be a mistake, Reimann says:
While I agree with some critics that there are unanswered questions, I don't think many of these remaining questions can be answered before the plan is implemented. It is a risk of a choice plan that choice implies some uncertainty.
I also agree with the critics that the plan is incomplete — left that way intentionally by the old Republican majority. But we now have a new pro-schools majority. (I am not going to give in to the fiction that this group of non-politicians, elected in a non-partisan election, should be called "Democratic" just because they are registered Democrats ... and four of the five people they defeated were, indeed, Republican politicians.)
The new board majority has the power to complete the plan with one or the other (or both) of two simple amendments designed to assure diverse schools and avoid the creation of high-poverty schools.
One amendment would promote achievement — the diversity factor — above proximity in the process for allocating seats in schools where the demand exceeds the supply. The other amendment would set aside seats in high-achieving schools so that kids from low-income areas who apply to that school are assured of acceptance.
Both changes would improve the plan in terms of its outcomes for kids from low-income neighborhoods who, because there isn't room for all of them in nearby magnet schools — they are "structurally displaced," as Tata puts it, by the fact that about half the seats in their schools are reserved for magnet applicants — must attend some other school.
The idea behind having set-asides and of promoting achievement in the allocation process is the same: Kids who are structurally displaced should be favored in the choice process, not given the leftovers — that is, the seats in schools that nobody else wanted.
With the amendments, the plan would still be imperfect. What plan isn't? The only perfect plan, as board member Chris Malone said last week, is the one that gives every parent a choice, "that choice being what they wanted all along."
With limited capacity and funds, no such perfection is in reach.
If the amendments are adopted, will the plan be successful over time?
I don't know the answer to that question. Tell me whether the voters will pass a critically needed, very big school bond issue in the next two years ... and whether the Wake Commissioners will increase funding for the schools (and, indeed, whether the General Assembly will also) ... and I'd be willing to take a shot at it.
The Tata plan — or any controlled-choice plan — depends for its success on having some slack capacity in the school system; if too many schools are full, where's the choice?
Success also depends on having sufficient funds to intervene quickly when schools are under-selected or, freighted with too many under-achieving students, get labeled as "failing" schools. A failed school won't be selected by anyone with a (real) choice who's paying attention. Schools cannot be allowed to fail.
That said, I think the Tata plan will hold for a year or two at the least. There isn't much slack capacity in the school system now — without 1,000 pre-fab classroom trailers, there wouldn't be any — but the pell-mell pace of growth in Wake County has slowed since the recession, and the $970 million bond issue from 2006 has helped immensely. So there's a window of time to give the plan a tryout.
The alternative, to junk it or put it off pending months of further wrangling and confusion, strikes me as wrong substantively and a terrible decision for this new school board to make politically.
I know Kevin Hill hates it when anyone (I include myself) suggests that he view things in political terms. But I'm using that word today, after the election, not to foretell what will get anyone re-elected (or elected). Rather, I mean political in the sense of what's good for the body politic — the public.
The public's been through hell on this issue for two years. A consensus has formed around a compromise approach that may or may not be the long-term answer, but it is the only answer on the table as we speak. Sensible people say it's an approach worth trying. Tata has staked his reputation on it, so unless the new board wants him gone — and contrary to Republican assertions, that's not the case — a meeting of the minds is in order.
To approve the plan now, with changes, is not to preclude further changes for 2013-14 and beyond — changes to feeder patterns, to priorities in the choice process, to the establishment or dis-establishment of new STEM schools, or leadership academies, or single-sex academies or even (dare I say it?) charter schools operated under the school board's aegis.
The plan has undoubted impact on magnet schools. At the work session last week, it was agreed the magnet schools must be protected and the plan, if adopted, should be analyzed to assure that it works in harmony with the magnet schools, not at cross-purposes with them.
Tata's plan may not be what the new school board would've come with on its own given a two-year head start. it may not be what it will come up with over the next four years. But throwing it out with little or no time left to fashion an alternative for the 2012-13 school year would be justifiable only if disaster was impending. And it isn't.