Dear Mr. Tata: Welcome to Wake County. You were good enough to say, during your recent visit, that Wake County is North Carolina's "crown jewel." I agree, and I agree with you that the school system you've been chosen to lead is one reason for the glow. I trust you will treat it with the utmost care so it retains its luster for future generations.
You're no doubt aware that many in Wake question the school board's wisdom in hiring you for this position. Others think a non-educator is just what the schools need. I started to say non-bureaucrat, but I'm inclined to think that as a 28-year Army veteran who retired as a brigadier general, you must have solid bureaucratic skills that will help in your new job.
Anyway, my point in writing isn't to second-guess a hiring decision already made. Rather, it's to share with you my sense that, whatever people thought of that decision, they're saying their prayers that you will find a way forward through the minefield that Wake school politics has become.
In short, we want you to succeed. We hope to be with you, not against you.
Before writing, I asked a dozen thoughtful people to help me express what your way forward should be. These are folks—parents of school kids for the most part—of the sort you probably had in mind last week when you said you want to hear from everyone in Wake including "the other end of the spectrum."
It was a throwaway remark, and I know you meant it only as a shorthand reference for people who've criticized the school board majority that brought you here. Still, the best advice I can offer you is not to think of Wake County or its electorate in that way—that polarized way.
The board majority did indeed win a single election, taking control of the board in 2009 with five seats out of nine. But to view it as representative of what the county thinks, or even as representing one end of the political spectrum with its critics at the other end, would be—if you'll pardon a military metaphor—to fundamentally mistake the terrain you're about to occupy.
Wake County's political center is broad, moderate and supportive of the public schools. It has been for the 34 years since the Raleigh and Wake school systems were merged into one. In 17 consecutive elections, moderate Republicans and moderate and progressive Democrats were elected to all or nearly all of the school board seats. Only in '09 did such candidates lose—to conservative candidates who won, however, with the support of less than 5 percent of Wake's registered voters.
This is not to denigrate the board majority's authority. School board elections are always low-turnout; the majority was elected fair and square.
But it's also true that the majority won by exploiting a single sore point with some voters—the regularity with which students outside of Raleigh were being reassigned from school to school. The majority candidates blamed these unwelcome reassignments on "diversity" and "busing," a racially loaded term in the South.
In fact, however, most reassignments were due to the county's explosive growth, especially in the outlying suburbs. New schools were opened there, but barely enough to meet the demand. Consequently, every new school had to be filled—and most were filled not just nine months a year but year-round with students reassigned from other schools.
This issue of reassignments, when exploited by a battalion of Republican campaign operatives, was enough to overwhelm the slate of moderate candidates whose supporters were, to say the least, complacent. Whereupon the members of the new board majority barreled into office like a wrecking ball, trashing their predecessors and claiming a mandate to change anything and everything about the schools post haste.
A year later, their main accomplishments have been to drive off your predecessor, the widely respected Del Burns; quit the N.C. School Boards Association; alienate AdvancED, the schools' longtime accrediting agency; bring on an investigation by the civil rights unit of the U.S. Department of Education; and make such a spectacle of their apparent disdain for school integration that they were called out publicly last week by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who termed their anti-diversity stance "backward."
"The military doesn't approve of ready, fire, aim," Raleigh resident Patti Pilarinos, a former teacher, suggested that I say to you. "Neither should the school board."
Of late, Wake County's schools have been featured in newspaper and TV stories from coast to coast and not in a flattering way.
The business community is soft-pedaling this for now, but I believe it is quietly appalled to see our schools—and by extension our county—held up to national ridicule when prior to the '09 elections, Raleigh-Wake was extolled as the epitome of go-go metros.
The majority's actions have so inflamed the atmosphere, in fact, that the majority is no longer even a majority: Debra Goldman, one of the five, has stepped away and is now a swing vote between her four erstwhile allies and the other four board members who are pro-diversity and not down on the system.
Goldman is listening, in other words.
Which is the key thing most of the people I talked with want me to convey to you: Listen before you leap.
Listen, said Patty Williams, one of the leaders of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, to the overwhelming majority of parents who reported, in response to the board majority's survey last spring, that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their school assignments—a total of 94.5 percent of the astounding 40,000 parents who filled it out.
Listen to the Wake chapter of the N.C. Education Association's poll of teachers, which found 80 percent in favor of retaining the diversity policy.
Listen, too, when parents like Shila Nordone, who supports the board majority, say the Wake system has gone slack about helping economically disadvantaged students. The 58 percent graduation rate for these kids was a dirty little secret hidden in plain view until the new majority members swept into office. They made it their favorite subject. But they haven't—to use your favorite word—"resourced" it. Instead, they've tried, contrary to common sense, to blame diversity for it.
And listen to students like Monserrat Alvarez, the 18-year old Meredith College freshman who shook your hand before resuming her protest against your appearance before the anti-tax Wake County Taxpayers Association. Alvarez is eloquent about the educational value, for poor kids and rich ones, of attending schools with kids from different backgrounds. For her, the child of an immigrant mom, it was the difference between meeting the people who helped her to succeed and not meeting them. "I am a product of the diversity policy," Alvarez says, "and for this I am extremely grateful."
Finally, listen to the vast majority of Wake's citizenry who are in the political middle, supportive of the school system but also concerned that it isn't as good as it needs to be.
"You've been handed a gift, Mr. Tata," Raleigh parent Marguerite LeBlanc wrote to me. "You've been given one of the nation's most respected school systems to manage. You were hired to improve student achievement, or so we were told, and that's a goal [everyone] in our county is eager to support. Show us you can put politics and ideology aside and put our children first."
Some other points from the political center: Wake County isn't D.C.—1. You commented, based on your 18 months as chief operating officer of the Washington school system, that the district has successful neighborhood schools that may be a model for Wake. Two things: One, almost all of the D.C. schools were terrible prior to your arrival as part of former chancellor Michelle Rhee's rescue team; they were abandoned years ago by families who could afford to move to suburbs or pay for private schools. A few D.C. schools have improved—slightly. Raleigh's schools were never abandoned and continue to thrive.
But a second difference, as Great Schools in Wake leader Yevonne Brannon points out, is that Washington is a compact city where it's possible for every student to walk to a "neighborhood" school. By contrast, most of Wake County—Raleigh included—is built to suburban standards, meaning that kids can't get to any school unless they're driven or bused. Does it really matter so much whether they're driven two miles or four?
Wake County isn't D.C.—2: You were trained for educational leadership at an institute funded by philanthropist Eli Broad, whose aim is to turn around failing big-city school systems. Wake County, though, is a hybrid city-suburban system that was designed for the explicit purpose of not having a failed city system in the first place. Using magnet schools and a modest amount of cross-busing between city and suburbs, the Raleigh-Wake system has managed to keep all 163 of its schools reasonably diverse and relatively equal, with the upshot that, as Syracuse University professor Gerald Grant concluded, "There are no bad schools in Raleigh."
Wake County isn't D.C.—3: It's simple economics. The district spends a reported $17,448 per student on its schools, approximately twice what Wake County spends. One reason: Almost every Wake school is full or over capacity, even with 1,100 classroom trailers in use. In Raleigh's poorest neighborhoods, magnet schools lure kids from the suburbs.
In the district, as you know (and in Charlotte, which abandoned its diversity policy eight years ago), schools in the poorest neighborhoods stand empty or still operate but are half-full. The district pays for "wrap-around" services—supplemental teaching and social services for kids in high-poverty schools—and Charlotte did too before the economic recession caused its school board to cut them. Wrap-arounds help, but expensively, compared with not creating any high-poverty schools. "Not many areas of our country have handled [Wake's] kind of growth," Raleigh parent Anne Meulink said to me. "We've done a brilliant job on half a shoestring budget."
Wake County isn't D.C.—4: Let's talk about the political realities. Congress is relatively generous with funding for the D.C. schools. You can expect no such generosity in Wake, where school funds are controlled by a Republican board of county commissioners and, starting next week, new Republican majorities in the General Assembly. In both bodies, the Republicans reflect the views of a pair of wealthy businessmen, Art Pope and Bob Luddy, who were behind the school board majority's '09 wins and who want the General Assembly to slash public school aid and replace it with cheaper charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.
To the extent that Wake County abandons its diversity policy, in other words, in favor of creating high-poverty schools in Raleigh and eastern Wake County that will need extra "resourcing," no such money is going to materialize. The only thing that will materialize is a dagger to Raleigh's status as a smart, fast-growing Southern city.
It is undeniable that Wake County's growth stretched our old school assignment policy to the breaking point. It used to be that, wherever they lived in the county, students could choose a magnet school in Southeast Raleigh and travel there in a reasonable time. No longer: The distances, and the traffic congestion, are too much for kids living in the new subdivisions of Holly Springs, for example.
Thus, the decision to split the county into assignment zones, with families assured that their children won't be sent out of "their" zone, seems inevitable. The only question now: Will the zones be relatively equal in their socioeconomic makeup? Or will there be "have" zones and high-poverty zones? The latter seemed in the offing under board member John Tedesco's scheme until Debra Goldman finally pulled the plug on it.
Michael Alves, the expert hired by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce to devise a new assignment plan, has promised to balance parents' desires for schools close to their homes ("proximity") with the goal of avoiding high-poverty schools and zones. Whether he can pull that off remains to be seen. One key to doing so: fewer zones—a lot fewer than Tedesco's 14.
In the progressive community, assignment zones were anathema because it was feared that any such lines, once drawn, would be unequal and lead to school abandonment in Southeast Raleigh and Central Raleigh.
But in the political center, where most progressives have gone since the '09 elections, the feeling now is that a proper balance can and must be struck. "The Alves plan," says Wake Commissioner Stan Norwalk, a Democrat who is a sharp critic of the school board majority, "is the major opportunity for compromise. No single plan will satisfy everyone, but the sponsorship of the business community, which has stayed above this battle, will help it gain acceptance."
Mr. Tata, as you prepare to take office in Wake County next week, please listen to the voices telling you that the school board majority has lost its bearings, and the way forward for them—and you—is down the political center.
Our schools are good. We want them to be better. But the resources to make them better are in short supply, and they'll be even shorter if Wake County goes to war with itself over underfunded public schools versus partially funded private ones. That's the danger, but it's also your opportunity to lead us in a better direction.
I wish you the best.