Quick answers to school questions

July 21, 2010 

— A long, hot day of protest marked by a downtown march and rally and arrests at a Wake school board meeting overshadowed the central issues and political stakes roiling North Carolina's largest school district.

Since four Republican-backed newcomers swept into office in early December to form a new majority, deep political divisions and sharp partisanship have emerged, chiefly because of their decision to ditch the district's long-standing diversity policy and their unbending determination to assign students to schools closer to their homes.

Here are some of the key questions and answers in this debate:

1. What are the competing points of view on the Wake school system's now-discarded diversity policy?

Supporters of the diversity policy, which was first based on race, then on the economic background of students' families, argue that it bolstered overall academic performance by balancing the percentage of poor and minority students at individual schools. By busing students, Wake avoided having schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students, resulting in lower academic performance. The district also aimed to avoid higher teacher turnover rates common to such schools and greater per-pupil spending on tutoring and other remedial academic programs. The policy also resulted in school populations that better reflected the overall racial and socioeconomic makeup of the county.

Opponents argue the policy's reliance on busing imposed an additional hardship on students and parents while masking the lower academic performance of poor and minority students within higher overall academic performance at individual schools. The policy also exacerbated a complicated student assignment system marked by frequent reassignments and some lengthy bus rides. In addition, students in the same family were sometimes assigned to different schools on different schedules, making parental support of their children's schools difficult.

2. What are the competing points of view on the Wake school board majority's evolving plan to base student assignments on neighborhood school zones?

Supporters of the board majority's plan to divide the county into an unspecified number of neighborhood school zones say the new plan will result in less frequent reassignment and greater stability to families. With students attending schools closer to their homes, bus rides will be shorter and parents will be better able to support their local schools, they say.

Opponents argue the new plan will result in de facto resegregation and create a system of have and have-not schools and neighborhoods. At schools with high percentages of poor and minority students, teacher turnover and dropout rates will rise while academic performance will plummet, they say. More money would be needed in those schools for remedial academic training and teacher incentives, but funding is already in short supply. Neighborhood school zones will limit planners' ability to transfer students to schools operating below capacity could mean more new schools may have to be built sooner to handle rising enrollment and overcrowding.

3. Who are the major players in this fight?

On the one side are school board chairman Ron Margiotta and the four Republican-backed board members who swept into office last fall, elected from suburban districts that were especially affected by transfer policies and mandatory year-round schools.

The four-member Democratic minority represents districts closer to downtown Raleigh, where most of the city's popular magnet schools are located. They are aligned with previous board majorities that put the mandated diversity and magnet school policies in place.

4. What are the political stakes in play?

Leaders of both parties have said that getting voters interested in the school board controversy could help bring them to the polls for statewide and national races. Wake County has typically gone Democratic in national races, but the GOP sees an opportunity to turn Wake red through voter responsiveness to the school board issues.

5. Recently released test scores show modest but nearly across-the-board gains in reading and math. Does that mean the diversity policy was working?

Hard to say. Changes in testing methods and in enforcing the diversity policies to the fullest mean that both sides can make plausible cases that their method is best.

6. Why does the board majority favor changing the requirements for school superintendent?

They have argued that the academic leadership requirements unnecessarily restrict the board's ability to hire candidates who might have valuable business or military background, or whose educational experience is too far in the past.

7. What are the next big turning points in this fight?

The next battlegrounds will likely be over the selection of a new superintendent and the drawing of boundary lines for the new neighborhood school districts. There is also the threat of lawsuits by the NAACP and other groups who may challenge the neighborhood schools plan on constitutional grounds.

8. When do traditional-calendar schools start for the coming school year?

Aug. 25.

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