The much-anticipated Wake School Choice plan, unveiled last Friday by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the business-backed Wake Education Partnership, would flip Wake County's school assignment process on its head, offering at least the possibility of a settlement in the long battle over reassignments.
The plan doesn't magically resolve the hard-nut question of diversity in the schools—far from it. But its "new paradigm of choice," as the plan's backers term it, does give the two sides in the diversity fight the chance to come to the middle if they choose to.
"Diversity matters," chamber board chair Gary Joyner says flatly. "We expect diversity to be a natural outgrowth of this plan."
Perhaps, but the plan itself—even were the board to adopt it verbatim—would not require diverse student populations in the schools, nor would it necessarily create them as a natural, albeit indirect, result.
The key to whether that occurs, says Perry Woods, a political consultant who's advised most of the pro-diversity school board candidates in recent years, is whether the board majority will voluntarily put meat on the bones of the plan's skeletal student-achievement goal, giving it equal standing with the other highly specific goals of choice, stability and proximity.
Student achievement is, in effect, the plan's proxy for diversity. No school is supposed to have too many students performing below grade level. If the school does, parents of better-performing students simply won't choose it—and it will get worse.
But it's not clear how this new diversity goal will be accomplished.
"The devil will be in the details," Woods says, the same phrase used by the Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, at the HK on J rally in Raleigh Saturday. Barber, a harsh critic of the board majority, vowed to fight any compromise that would result in a resegregated school system or "in sacrificing our children's future."
From the board majority's side, reactions to the plan were noncommittal. Board chair Ron Margiotta called it a starting point. Vice chair Debra Goldman called for a "deliberate and reasoned process" starting with Superintendent Tony Tata's review and recommendations. Board member John Tedesco said the plan is "in line with my values," but he was vague about a specific student-assignment goal.
The plan, developed with the help of education consultant Michael Alves, represents a reversal of Wake's longstanding student assignment process. Instead of the school system and the board taking the lead on assignments—with parents given some choices along the way—the choice method would give parents the lead while reserving some latitude for the school system to fill underutilized schools and, if the board chooses to do so, avert underachieving schools.
Under the new plan, every student could choose from at least 10 elementary schools and five middle and high schools. They (or their parents) would be asked to rank their top five choices in each category. At least two year-round schools and two magnet schools would be included in the elementary options.
Students wouldn't necessarily get their first-choice school. But Alves, who's done similar plans for many school districts, says that 85 percent are likely to be placed in their first choice and 93 percent in their first or second choice.
Assignments would be made based on stability (if a sibling goes there, you can go there), proximity (living within one-and-a-half miles equals acceptance) and available space.
For starters, all students would be "grandfathered" in the school they now attend: If they want to stay there, it's guaranteed that they can.
Once in a school, moreover, they would be protected against involuntary reassignment when new schools are opened. They could choose the new school (or some other school, space permitting), but they wouldn't be reassigned to it unless they wanted to be. The only reassignments would happen when students start middle school and high school.
Stability, proximity and choices (magnet schools, year-round schools) have been part of the assignment process for years. But they have mixed with some mandatory reassignments to new schools as they've been opened plus some not-so-proximate assignments. These were made in an effort to keep every school's enrollment of students from low-income families below a fixed percentage—30 percent at first; then 40 percent; and lately 50–60 percent as the county's exploding suburbs made maintenance of the diversity policy, in chamber CEO Harvey Schmitt's words, "a patchwork."
In the new plan, though, the goals of stability, proximity and choice are very specifically defined and guaranteed. But the fourth goal, or "pillar," of student achievement is left open for the school board to decide.
"No school should be designed as low-performing," the plan states, meaning that no school should end up with too many students who are not achieving at or above grade level. "To do so is unfair to principals, teachers, students and the core mission of schooling."
But the plan stops short of saying what constitutes too many low-achieving students in a school. Instead, it points to "a range" of at least 70 percent achieving at grade level (a figure once used by Tedesco) as a desirable target for every school. Any school falling below 70 percent, it says, will have trouble attracting students because their parents would have other choices.
Overall, 85 percent of Wake students perform at or above grade level on math tests; on reading, the figure is just 76 percent.
Whether a 70 percent target can be maintained in schools located in the high-poverty neighborhoods of Raleigh, therefore, is a huge question. Doing so would seem to be possible only if the school board is willing to intervene quickly—with additional funds, programs or by denying high-achieving students who live near such schools the choice to go elsewhere—before a school's low performance becomes a self-perpetuating downward spiral of abandonment and worsening performance.
That's what happened in Charlotte, notes the WEP's education expert, Tim Simmons, where parents were offered a similar "choice" plan, and the school board neglected the intervention part. Before long, the suburban schools there were overcrowded and jammed with classroom trailers. Meanwhile, inner-city schools lost students; this year, they've been tagged for abandonment.
Simmons said intervention might require additional funding. Or, in other cases, a new principal and teachers may be needed to turn a school around.
One factor the plan underscored was that the magnet schools in Southeast Raleigh are working well to attract students from the suburbs. These schools should not be changed or diluted (fewer magnet seats in a school) until the new plan is established.
The plan's authors also believe choice will help student achievement in every school by forcing all of them to compete for students.
Diversity proponents in Wake, while recognizing that the old assignment process is unlikely to be revived while the new school board majority reigns, is nonetheless leery of the board's intentions. As members of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition put it, the idea behind the choice plan is workable, but only if the school board takes the student-achievement goal seriously and doesn't allow low-achieving schools to fester.
"If we in Wake County could reaffirm a commitment to equality of educational opportunity," the GSIW's Karey Harwood said in an op-ed article circulated by the group yesterday, "which is the purpose of public education in a democratic society, and also reaffirm our commitment to the existing magnet program as it was originally conceived to maximize the use of facilities and encourage voluntary integration, we could turn our attention to solving the problems that vex us."
Clarification (Feb. 17, 2011): The above quote from Karey Harwood is from an op-ed article, not a prepared statement.