National experts sing praises of the Wake County school system, calling it—as Syracuse University's Gerald Grant did in a recent book—"a beacon of hope" in the rubble of America's failing urban districts.
With good schools as a key selling point, Wake is among the nation's fastest-growing counties, but that means the school system is under constant pressure to keep up with the growth—and to reassign students as new schools come on line. Locally, these reassignments are greeted with a chorus of complaints.
That's the yin and yang of this year's school board elections and of the diversity policies that are the central issue in the campaign: People say "The school system is great," or they say "It's not great for me and my children."
The critical reason why Wake's schools succeed where other urban districts don't, experts say, is the school board's longstanding commitment to maintaining balanced student populations (diversity) so that there are no schools with all rich— or all poor—kids in them.
It's a tough, but vital, job in a county with 159 schools and 140,000 students—up from 126 schools and 109,000 students six years ago—where most neighborhoods are not economically diverse. Students are assigned to a school near their homes, not necessarily the nearest one.
A steady increase in the number of economically disadvantaged students, to almost 30 percent of all students, makes it tougher still, and has coincided with a slight drop in graduation rates.
Contrast, as Grant did, the prosperity of inside-the-Beltline Raleigh with almost every other American city you can name, where parents who can afford to do so flee from the city's central neighborhoods so their children can attend good suburban schools. American cities are hurting. Raleigh is flourishing—and Wake County with it.
But if diversity is a root cause of the region's success, it is nonetheless a cuss word to some angry parents in western Wake County. They want neighborhood schools, with their children assigned to the closest school, diversity be damned. Or rather, they call for diversity by other means, ignoring abundant evidence that the only other way to save neighborhood schools in poverty-stricken neighborhoods is through huge amounts of extra money that isn't available.
In this election, diversity's critics have gathered under the banner of the Wake Schools Community Alliance (WSCA), which is unmistakably, if unofficially, aligned with the Republican Party. A slate of candidates, one in each of the four district races, is running with joint WSCA-GOP backing.
If all four were to win, they'd seize control of the board, joining with lone Republican holdover Ron Margiotta to form a 5-4 bloc.
To put it bluntly, if the Republicans get control of the school board, diversity will be junked, and there will be no pots of new money to replace it. Their antitax candidates won't ask for any, sparing the Wake County Commissioners the chore of saying no.
Indeed, if diversity is the marquee issue in this campaign, skimpy school budgets are the problem hovering beneath the surface, forcing the school board to make do with too many classroom trailers, too few magnet schools and too few programs for at-risk students and high-achievement students.
Only by dint of painstaking reassignments—trying hard to put a warm student body in every available seat while accommodating as many parents' requests as possible for waivers and magnets—has the board been able to maintain a balance while spending about $225 less per student than the North Carolina average, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. All of this juggling takes its toll. Three of the four incumbents aren't seeking re-election, citing the tremendous time demands of doing this complex job well.
Fortunately, new candidates have stepped up who understand that diversity and neighborhood schools are each desirable goals that must be balanced if the center—the system—is to hold.
Bumper-sticker solutions won't do for Wake County's schools, and party politics freighted with the Republicans' tax-cut ideology and disdain for the poor really won't do when the subject is the education of all children.
District 1 (Northeast)
We support RITA RAKESTRAW, a community leader in Knightdale who promises a fresh perspective and an open mind on school quality and diversity in her eastern Wake County district. Rakestraw, a first-time candidate, is a former teacher (special education and second grade) with two preschool-age kids. She's eloquent in her support for diversity as important to preparing students for real life, as well as for its benefits to the school system overall. Neighborhood schools are also a "basic value we should follow," she says, and children shouldn't be forced to ride long distances in a bus. Striking the right balance between the two would be helped, Rakestraw argues, by creating new magnet schools in the east, where the number of economically disadvantaged students is disproportionately high compared with the rest of the county.
Rakestraw is running with the support of the Wake-North Carolina Association of Educators, a teachers group. (It also endorsed Horace Tart, Karen Simon and Lois Nixon.) Her chief rival is former Wake Forest Town Commissioner Chris Malone, who is backed by the Wake GOP and the WSCA. Malone is a case manager for a security and investigations firm and an unsuccessful candidate five years ago for the board of county commissioners. He is a strident opponent of "busing" and reassignments, saying diversity can somehow be achieved without either. A third candidate, Wake Forest PTA leader Deborah Ann Vair, also opposes busing.
District 2 (Southeast)
HORACE TART, the incumbent, is a plainspoken fellow to the point of occasionally being tongue-tied or worse. He's also a conservative Republican—a builder and developer, but also a former teacher—who arrived on the school board four years ago with a clear view that diversity was overrated and that neighborhood schools, combined with strong character education and his dream project, a new vocational high school in his district, were the answer to the system's needs.
When he put his shoulder to the wheel, though, he learned that what the system needs is all of those things, including diversity, plus additional funding for low-performing schools.
Tart hasn't gotten his voc-ed high school yet, though he's working on it. But he has found additional aid (dollars and staff) for several low-performing schools in Garner. In this field of three Republicans, Tart is the only one with the candor to say that while the school system's not all good, it isn't all bad either. We think he's earned a second term.
Cathy Truitt, a retired teacher and principal in the Johnston County school system, is a viable alternative for anyone unwilling to support Tart. But Truitt comes across like she's running for school superintendent, not school board, with her focus on "learning frameworks" and such. On policy issues like reassignments and diversity, she's determinedly opaque.
John Tedesco, the GOP-WSCA candidate, promises to bring politics to the school board and not in a good way. Tedesco is the fund-raising officer for a nonprofit, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, which does good work. But Truitt is right that the last thing the Wake board needs is a politician—the opposite of what Tedesco ("a politician can make changes happen") says.
Two other names are on the ballot: Chris Augustine withdrew from the race too late to be removed. Carlene Lucas did too, but last week announced she's running again.
District 7 (Northwest-Morrisville)
KAREN SIMON, a first-time candidate, describes herself as a conservative liberal. She's an Army veteran with conservative "morals and values," who's employed with the Governor's Crime Commission. She's liberal in her support of a strong public education system as the platform for equal opportunity in this country. She's staunchly pro-diversity. At the same time, she supports constant review of the magnet schools and assignment policies used to achieve diversity. Residents in District 7, she says, "need stable student assignments," not frequent moves to new schools. It's a reasonable formulation.
Deborah Prickett, the GOP-WSCA candidate, works for the state Department of Public Instruction, assisting local districts on character education programs. She's good at finding the system's flaws, including a recent drop in graduation rates and a low graduation rate (54 percent) among economically disadvantaged students. But it's a narrow analysis that doesn't support her conclusion that diversity policies should give way to neighborhood schools and the low-income kids will do better somehow.
District 9 (West-Cary)
LOIS NIXON is an unaffiliated voter and always has been, she says. Not surprisingly, her view of the Wake school system is also independent-minded. She considers diversity's value "proven" but thinks if parents' choices are increased via more magnet programs and year-round options then forced reassignments can be reduced. The fact that Wake spends $225 less per student than the state average, however, and habitually lags growth in building new schools—decisions made by the county commissioners—inevitably hamstrings the system's ability to expand choices, she says.
Nixon is the retired director of Wake County's Keep America Beautiful program, a job in which she was an effective environmental educator for the school system and the public.
Her opponent, WSCA- and GOP-backed candidate Debra Goldman, attacked Nixon as "old guard," as if having a good record of public service somehow disqualified her for this office. It was a cheap shot and way off the mark: Nixon is smart, energetic and highly qualified for this tough assignment. That's not to say Goldman isn't ready in her own way. Her work as a volunteer firefighter and emergency first-responder suggests that she has the vigor, but her policy prescriptions—neighborhood schools, more resources for at-risk kids but no tax hikes, no way—don't add up. Oh, and no more year-round schools, but do cut the "tremendous waste" that conservatives keep saying is in the school budget—until, that is, they're asked to identify it.