Five months in office, and for the members of the new Wake County school board majority, it had come to this: In a hastily called special meeting that began at 4 o'clock last Friday afternoon, John Tedesco—their guy—was struggling to explain how a new school assignment plan might be crafted to allow parental choice without resulting in a segregated system.
"I'm talking about setting the choice-application draw patterns and the algorithm different," Tedesco said. He was trying to say that unpopular school assignments made by the old school board might've been more popular if the parents had been allowed to choose them.
"I don't get it," said Anne McLaurin, a member of that old board who's now on the minority side of the new board's 5-4 split. The parents wouldn't have chosen them because "their preference was to go to the school with less poverty."
For more than an hour, Tedesco talked about a plan that was, as he continually emphasized, not a plan but rather a conceptual method for creating a new assignment plan over the coming year. He was, at turns, mystifyingly opaque and seemingly open-minded.
The plan should reflect the county's values, he said, including stable assignments for kids, choices for parents, the most efficient use of existing and new schools, and yes, diversity in school populations. "If it's one of our community values, that's what will go into it," Tedesco said. "The community will make that decision."
His presentation was so general that one parent, at the end, asked heatedly why the new majority didn't simply modify the existing assignment policy instead of attacking it—and voting to do away with diversity—to the point that the county is on the verge of a political war. "Many of the same principles that are in [the existing] Policy 6200 are exactly what you talked about today," said Jim Martin, a chemistry professor at N.C. State. "I'm just trying to understand why we had to go through this."
But if Tedesco wanted to leave the impression that the new majority would preserve diversity (which he usually termed "balance") along with stability and choice, Board Chairman Ron Margiotta offered a different take as he adjourned the meeting.
Margiotta had kept his thoughts to himself, listening to Tedesco—a man half his age and many times as talkative—with only the occasional raised eyebrow or grimace. But now, Margiotta wanted to make it clear that if he has anything to say about it, diversity won't be a factor in future assignments.
"We're at the beginning of a process that's going to bring about a change in our assignment policy," Margiotta said. "All of us working together, I feel confident, can ensure a policy that will bring stability and choice to families—something that families have been requesting in this county for a long time."
So after months of skirmishing, the process begins with a hint that the majority bloc may not be rock solid, while diversity's defenders vow to fight for a plan that offers stability, choice and balance.
"I've heard some people say that this is over," said Yevonne Brannon, chair of the pro-diversity Great Schools in Wake coalition, assuring a crowd of 150 at the GSIW forum in North Raleigh the night before the board meeting. "No, it's only just starting."
The unusual Friday afternoon session came about because Tedesco, whom Margiotta charged with figuring out a new assignment plan, was showing a skeletal version of a plan to a few people—without bringing it to the full board or convening a meeting of the board-appointed Student Assignment Committee.
When reporters and other board members asked to see it, a special meeting was called with barely the legally required 48 hours' advance public notice and held at a time and in a place (the board's small conference room, not its public meeting room) of maximum public inconvenience. Other than the media and school staff, only about two dozen people attended.
Tedesco's basic idea is simple enough. Divide the county into four or five regions, with several "assignment zones" in each. Start the assignment process by letting parents choose from among the school or schools in their zone, other schools in the region or a magnet school in their region or in another one.
That's different than the current plan, which assigns students to schools in groups (1,320 geographic "nodes") according to where they live but allows them to apply for admission to a magnet school or a school with a year-round calendar.
In Tedesco's scheme, though, parents wouldn't necessarily get their choice, or they might not get their first choice. Rather, students would be assigned according to a complex and yet-to-be-devised formula (Tedesco likes calling it an algorithm) using such factors as school capacity, proximity to the family, prior assignment (stability), assignments of other family members, achievement, and "logical feeder patterns" from an elementary to a middle school to a high school.
These factors would be weighted to reflect community values after a process that Tedesco promises will be inclusive and public.
Tedesco excludes diversity as a factor that should be in the equation. But when questioned, he says it would be added if the public wants it; and in any event, he says, the board must guard against "creating any concentrations of poverty" in specific schools.
By drawing the zones and weighting the factors in the formula so they produce balanced results, he says. And if they don't, you put in "controls."
Tedesco is getting advice from a Duke University economics professor, Atila Abdulkadiroglu, who spoke briefly at Friday's meeting. Abdulkadiroglu said the Boston school system uses an assignment formula that begins with choice but also accounts for "system preferences," one of which can be that the system should not have segregated schools.
"Choice can produce segregated schools," Abdulkadiroglu said, citing Charlotte-Mecklenburg as a system that too freely allows parents to choose "neighborhoods schools" and inadequately controls for the impact of their individual choices on the system as whole.
"It sounds so simple," says former board member Beverley Clark. But it's one thing to talk about the need to weight the factors in an assignment formula, Clark says, and it's a much harder, politically wrought thing to actually weight them and make the assignments that keep the system balanced.
Every school board since the merger of the Raleigh and Wake County systems in 1976 has made the tough choices, she said. Only now is the new school board majority beginning to understand how tough they are.
"They've named a direction," Clark said, shaking her head, "but they haven't defined a direction—that's the hard part."
On Monday, 19 former school board members issued a statement supporting the school system and questioning the new board majority's approach. It called for "strong schools in every part of the county," a polite way of backing diversity, and for "open dialogue and data-driven strategic planning to build further on our school system's strong foundation."
Individual members were more blunt. "I'm just aghast at how things are being done," said Eleanor Goettee, who served one term and did not seek re-election last year in her Cary district. She was talking specifically about the partisanship of the current board, whose five majority members are Republicans.
Judy Hoffman, a Republican who served in the '90s, said the current board should set partisanship aside and focus on student achievement goals. "I do hope that whatever plan comes about, it will meet the criteria we set out in our statement today."
To read the full statement, see the Citizen blog. A link to the new Wake Education Partnership report on assignment policies can also be found at Citizen.