RALEIGH — The controversy swirling around Wake County's schools has taken on a political life of its own, and regional, state, local and grass-roots leaders are trying to define it for their own partisan purposes.
Everyone - Gov. Bev Perdue, visiting party dignitaries, activists - is trying to take advantage of the officially nonpartisan school board's fight over redistricting to motivate their followers for this year's elections.
Take Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, recently in the news for honoring his state's Civil War heritage without initially mentioning slavery. During the Wake GOP's annual Reagan Dinner last weekend, McDonnell used last fall's election of a new majority on the Wake school board as a rallying point.
"Wake County set the stage for voters nationally to vote for change in the 2009 elections," McDonnell said, according to a GOP news release. "And I challenge you to keep up the good fight and bring the North Carolina 2010 results to the same conclusion!"
Perdue and other Democratic leaders summoned up the Wake school board tussle at a county Jefferson-Jackson Day breakfast Saturday. Perdue asked party loyalists to talk to neighbors about the board's rejection of mandated diversity in schools and said the changes are not "the template for success in the 21st century."
"I've talked to the governor about it," said Wake County Democratic chairman Jack Nichols, who is also running for a county commission seat. "She is following the issue, and she is very concerned about what is happening in the schools."
The board has ended the system's longstanding policy of keeping schools diverse based on families' economic backgrounds. Since the new board controlled by a Republican-backed majority took office in December, controversy and unprecedented levels of media attention have accompanied efforts to revamp the system. The hopes of political gains by both parties have been a constant backdrop.
Members who served in past decades say partisanship was less overt for previous school boards, which were typically dominated by Democrats. But during the past decade, suburban discontent with student reassignment policies and mandatory year-round schools reached the boiling point. That resulted in the elections last year of four GOP-backed candidates and the end of the system's decades-old policy of maintaining either racial or socioeconomic diversity.
Spotting a popular cause in the making, the Wake Republican power structure chipped in with funding and electoral know-how, forcing the Democrats to play financial catch-up. Earlier this month, the state Democratic Party announced an effort to get volunteers in place to protest the changing direction of the Wake schools and elect diversity-minded officials. On the other side, at a tea party rally April 15, board member John Tedesco again linked politics to the board. He said the event represented conservative values that "need to be instilled in education."
GOP honors Pope, Luddy
Claude E. Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, said the GOP will benefit from the board's efforts to create a community-based assignment plan. However, the school board's new leadership was not created solely by partisan effort, he said.
"The GOP played a significant role in the election, but we did not dominate it," he said. "There were certainly other groups involved in the election of the school board."
At the Reagan Dinner, the Wake Republican Party passed out honors to stalwarts, including the two major donors to the campaigns to help elect the school board's four newcomers.
Businessman Bob Luddy won the Leadership Award, for the person who has "invested substantial resources, finances, technical assistance and enthusiastic support for Wake GOP candidates and causes." Art Pope, a former state representative, received the Jesse Helms Award for Courage, given to an elected official who exhibits courage in the spirit of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, a national hero to many conservatives.
Republicans remain in full control of the board, but are working in a heated atmosphere where almost daily developments renew the rancorous debate. Monday, persistent critics of the new board were among more than two dozen former members of the Wake County school board who issued a joint statement about the system. The statement's tone was diplomatic, but it clearly arose from concern about the actions of the current board in its first five months in office.
"Because research consistently shows that challenges to success for all students in high poverty and racially isolated schools are greater, we have worked to prevent the creation of such schools," former member Judy Hoffman said, reading the group's statement.
Former school board members who took part in Monday's event said they decided to take a public stand after talking informally about the actions of the board's ruling majority.
"I think it's been shocking to us, the rapidity with which things went downhill," said former member Jeff York, who served from 2001 to 2003.
Continuing along the community-schools path will likely exacerbate the academic achievement gap between low-income and more affluent students, rather than improve it, said former school board chairman John Gilbert. He added that Tedesco had set up admirable goals for the system, but that they will be difficult to achieve under his proposal.
"I'd like to see an example of a comparable urban school system that's been successful, that we could model, that would bring us closer to what Mr. Tedesco wants," Gilbert said.
On the other side of the issue, the grassroots organization Wake CARES, which supports the current board, issued its own statement in response; it was e-mailed before reporters had left a news event at the historic Murphey School.
"These [former school board members] are the very people who supported a failing policy for decades, which has resulted in a continual decline in all academic measurements and created a culture of low expectations and loss of opportunities for many students across all demographics and economic spectrums," the group's statement said.
County commissioner Stan Norwalk said the public debate over the school board's direction could already be having an effect as members work out the details of the new assignment plan.
"All of a sudden we're talking about choice and diversity," Norwalk said.
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