Role of public schools questioned

Wake board majority is willing to question role of traditional public schools.

Staff WritersApril 12, 2010 

  • Lindalyn Kakadelis, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school board member and head of the N.C. Education Alliance, was enlisted to train Wake school board members under a new arrangement between the county and the Civitas Institute.

    The N.C. Education Alliance, the think tank Kakadelis runs, is funded by the John Locke Foundation, of which influential Republican Art Pope is founding chairman. The Civitas Institute is also largely funded by the Locke Foundation, and Republican donor Bob Luddy is chairman of its board of directors.

    The list of resources Kakadelis provided to board members during the March 5 training session included "Education Next," a journal and Web site that features information about charter schools and vouchers, which pledge public money for private school tuition.

    "The child is more important to me than the system," said Kakadelis, who has long advocated for tax breaks for private school tuition, including schools with religious orientation. "I think the competition for the system is extremely important. I embrace every kind of educational option that parents would embrace."

    Kakadelis was in contact with the victors in last fall's elections even before Tedesco's runoff victory in November completed the new board majority, according to e-mail requested by The News & Observer.

    On Oct. 26, the e-mail shows, she met with Margiotta, then e-mailed him information about school systems in North Carolina that had been under federal desegregation orders. She also sent the name of a contact with the Center for Equal Opportunity, a think tank run by former Reagan administration official and affirmative action foe Linda Chavez.

    "I've talked to the board about lots of things over the last 10 to 12 years," Kakadelis said.

    Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith

  • Below is the percentage of students each school district serves out of all school-age children in its community. Those not served by the school districts are attending private schools, home schools or charter schools, which are non-traditional public schools.

    Wake: 83.3

    Charlotte-Mecklenburg: 81.2

    Durham: 80.2

    Statewide: 87.0

    SOURCES: INDIVIDUAL SCHOOL DISTRICTS, N.C. DIVISION OF NON-PUBLIC EDUCATION, N.C. DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION

— ******

CORRECTION

A front-page story Monday incorrectly said the Civitas Institute was funded by the John Locke Foundation. Both the Civitas Institute and the Locke Foundation receive principal funding from the John William Pope Foundation. The story also said businessman Bob Luddy owns three private schools. Luddy founded the schools, which are private nonprofits.

****** Ron Margiotta, who heads the board of the 140,000-student Wake County public schools system, also serves on the board of an Apex private school, whose owner says the traditional primacy of public schools will dwindle under a challenge from private schools.

And board member John Tedesco, a chief architect of the community schools approach that won voters over last year, says he would support a tax break to help families afford private schools if their needs are better served that way.

"I'm not afraid of open-market competition," Tedesco said.

Triangle businessman Bob Luddy, the largest donor to the ruling majority on the Wake County school board, is the owner of three private schools. Margiotta serves on the board of one of them,Thales Academy in Apex, and says there's no conflict between the roles.

Luddy said in an interview Friday that the importance of traditional public schools will likely diminish over time when faced with competition from options including private and charter schools.

"As the county and city and state are more and more in debt, in public education there's very little except for [offerings] for the best and brightest," Luddy said.

A majority of board members voted last week to ask legislators to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in North Carolina. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are free of some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow.

"Honestly, I would like to see the public schools get involved with the charter schools and develop a better working relationship because of the way that they tend to be theme schools," Margiotta said.

What this means is that diversity and reassignments aren't the only topic separating members of the Wake County school board - there's also a philosophical divide on how central a role traditional public schools should play. For the school board's Republican-backed majority, approaches such as increasing the number of charter schools and granting tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools don't have the stigma they held under the mostly Democratic coalition that held sway for decades.

The faction that's skeptical of those approaches is now in the board minority. Former chairman Kevin Hill and others say the shift would take away resources from financially strapped public schools, could support exclusionary schools and raise church-and-state issues if parochial schools are included.

Split over tax credits

Board member Dr. Anne McLaurin, who opposes tax breaks for private school tuition and thinks charter schools need more study, said Margiotta's role with Luddy's school goes directly against the proper role of board chairman: "the system's biggest cheerleader and largest standard-bearer."

"What you should believe is our public education is as good as any out there, and if it's not, you are going to make it that way," she said.

In the background of the differences among board members is the role that Republican power brokers Luddy and Art Pope played in electing the new coalition. The two businessmen were the majority's largest donors when individual, party and PAC contributions are totaled. Luddy has backed taxpayer support for private schools, including tax credits, for more than a decade. And, he has opened a Wake Forest charter school, Franklin Academy, and three private schools, including Thales academies in Apex and Wake Forest.

In an interview Friday, Luddy said the survival of traditional public schools should be up to parents.

"It should be parental choice, and that could come in a number of forms," he said. "Charter schools have overall worked very well. I favor the tax credit - a credit whether the person pays taxes or not."

There should also be a mechanism for helping low-income families, Luddy said.

But both Pope and Luddy said they have had no conversation with any of the new board members about charter schools, vouchers, tax credits or related subjects.

Lured away

There is precedent for board members opting out of the school district; former members Beverley Clark and Tom Oxholm sent some of their children to private schools.

Two of board member Chris Malone's children attend Luddy's charter school, Franklin Academy; a son attends public Wake Forest-Rolesville High School.

Margiotta said he joined the board of Thales Academy when parents in Apex, where he lives, were "looking for an out from the punishment that was being inflicted on them by the year-round calendars." Earlier this year, the new school board reversed a Wake policy that required some students to attend the year-round schools.

"I'd like to see the day when parents are unwilling to leave the public schools for any reason," Margiotta said.

Both Margiotta and Tedesco say they are public-school supporters who want their plan for community-based schools to lure back to Wake schools the roughly 17 percent of students who are in charter, private or home schools.

In an interview Friday, Pope, the second largest donor to the board's ruling majority, said that he supports charter schools and tax credits for private school tuition.

"If the family chooses that their child go to a private school, they are also paying the taxes for the public school," majority member Debra Goldman said. "I think there should be something. I don't have a definite answer for what it would be."

Malone said he would be open to considering the tax-break approach. Margiotta didn't comment specifically about tax credits.

'We're very concerned'

The power to make changes in charter school levels or state tax policy rests with the legislature, which, under Democratic control and with a Democratic governor's veto pen at the ready, is likely to continue its support of the traditional public schools. But the number of contacts between the Wake board's Republican majority and the conservative interests represented by Pope and Luddy have led to repeated liberal charges that the board is being influenced by an anti-public education agenda.

"We are all very concerned about it, because it seems that there's an agenda there - to dismantle the public school system and make it less attractive for middle- and upper-class families," said Maria Mauriello, a co-founder of BiggerPicture4Wake, a grassroots organization that supported the system's former diversity policy and losing candidates in last fall's elections.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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