RALEIGH — Key members of the Wake County school board majority say they're giving strong consideration to an assignment approach called "controlled choice" that could replace its former diversity-based plan without creating high-poverty schools.
Members of the minority on the sharply divided board say the method deserves consideration, depending on how key details are structured. The development offers a window into the closely watched building of a new plan - and the possibility of common ground between the factions. They have been warring over the demise of busing for diversity as it is replaced by community schools.
A controlled choice model for Wake would create a dozen or more attendance zones, each of which would reflect the makeup of Wake County - no rich zones or poor zones, said Massachusetts education consultant Michael Alves, who's helped design dozens of such systems nationally.
Parents would be able to choose from a wide range of school offerings in their zone, with a lottery to make another choice when schools are too crowded or apply to a countywide system of magnets, Alves said. He will be in Raleigh on Tuesday for a presentation before the board committee charged with developing a new plan. Parents would not be guaranteed of getting their first choice, but in systems that use controlled choice, such as Lee County, Fla., and Cambridge, Mass., a large majority do.
"We've been looking at a number of plans from a number of districts across the country," board chairman Ron Margiotta said Wednesday. "He's very close to what we have in mind, to my understanding."
Before a meeting Tuesday that involved the arrest of 19 protesters, Margiotta pledged to a packed boardroom that any new plan would not create schools with high levels of poor or minority students. Margiotta said Wednesday the statement mirrored what members in the majority have been saying since taking office in December. He sounded themes of choice and stability, but turned heads at the meeting when he ruled out a new crop of poor, high-minority schools in Wake.
Concern that a new community-based system would concentrate mostly minority schools near downtown Raleigh has been at the heart of increasingly vocal protests by some parents, religious leaders and social activists in recent months. Members of the board minority and others who have resisted the forthcoming plan showed cautious optimism that a controlled choice system might maintain some diversity in the schools.
"I am very excited about his coming and am very excited about learning about different options," said Dr. Anne McLaurin, a member of the board minority. "All of us realize we want to do better by all of our children. My reservation about assignment by choice is that people will always choose not to go to the poor schools. The devil is always in the details."
Seeking a friendly voice?
The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP and an outspoken critic of the dismantling of the diversity policy, said the decision to bring in the consultant appears to be little more than the board majority looking for a voice they want to hear.
"These five members, they came in with a playbook," said Barber. "What they're trying to do is, without a plan, destroy something that already is working and then go out and find someone who will say what they want."
Though he was skeptical about the board's decision to bring in Alves, Barber said the democratic process works on a free exchange of ideas. He said he hoped the board would also consider the NAACP's input, too.
About Alves' appearance, minority board member Kevin Hill said: "I'm looking forward to his coming to town and listening to him. I continue to look for the majority to reach out to reach to explore possibilities of how we can work more closely together."
Alves will speak at a meeting of the student assignment committee, which is headed by John Tedesco, an outspoken member of the board majority. Alves' principles are in line with the cluster assignment approach that Tedesco has presented publicly, using Garner, with its mix of traditional, year-round and magnet schools, as an example of one likely zone.
"By clustering schools together in a larger geographic area, we can manage them better without having to redraw lines," Tedesco said, echoing one of the tenets of controlled choice.
'Some good insight'
"I wouldn't have offered to give him so much of our agenda if I didn't think he could give us some good insight," Tedesco said of Alves, a widely consulted former Brown University professor who heads his own firm in the Boston suburb of Milton. His work helping school systems design assignment plans began in the early 1980s and has sometimes caused controversy, depending on the way individual systems have put it into place.
Efforts to reach board members Debra Goodman and Keith Sutton were unsuccessful Wednesday.
The consultant's appearance in Wake County is being paid for by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and Wake Education Partnership. He will confer with both organizations.
"The position of Wake Education Partnership has been and continues to be that in a system that is growing as rapidly as ours, change is something that we all have to embrace," said Ann Denlinger, president of Wake Education Partnership.
"The fact of the matter is that the approach that we have been taking almost for 30 years never anticipated the tremendous growth that we have enjoyed in Wake County."
Denlinger said it should be possible to come up with a plan that offers stability and choice while protecting the socioeconomic balance of the schools.
Orage Quarles III, publisher of The News & Observer, is on the 29-member board of Wake Education Partnership.
Some Wake parents who have dogged the new board through its efforts to change longstanding board policies eyed the introduction of Alves' presence into the assignment debate with both interest and suspicion. Margiotta's remarks about not allowing the growth of poor and high-minority schools had already gotten their attention, said Lynn Edmonds, co-chairwoman of the government relations committee of the community group Great Schools in Wake.
"It made me feel like we were starting to make a difference," Edmonds said. "Since December we have been dismissed more often than not. Even if it was appeasement, it seemed that we are gaining momentum with our support."
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