If Charlotte's long journey toward creating a workable school assignment plan is any example, its rival school system in Wake County could still be fighting about a plan when today's rising fifth-graders graduate from high school. And beyond.
Eight years have passed since the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools - released from federal court supervision and mandated desegregation - adopted a choice-based, neighborhood system seen as not too different from what Wake County is considering for its 140,000-plus students.
On Tuesday, Charlotte board members will once again try to nail down the factors that should determine student assignment zones. Like Wake's board members, they are split over the role that diversity should play.
Supporters of Wake's school-board majority often point to better results among poor and minority students in Charlotte, even though the system's overall scores are lower than Wake's. And those who resist change to Wake's diversity-based assignment system note that Charlotte's gains have come at great expense, with tens of millions of dollars in county, state and federal money spent trying to compensate for the disadvantages of high-poverty schools.
"The one thing Charlotte has done that has not been done in Wake, obviously, is closing gaps between higher-achieving and low-income and minority students," said John Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a statewide think tank.
At this time of year, when test scores show up, comparisons between the systems are rampant. At a discussion on the role of diversity in student assignment, Charlotte-Mecklenburg's superintendent, Peter Gorman, acknowledged that high-poverty schools create difficult situations for teachers and students but said that they are not insurmountable.
"What school we assign students to doesn't change their outlook for the future," Gorman said, comparing Charlotte-Mecklenburg's assignment method to Wake's long-term emphasis on diversity. "If it did that, we wouldn't be on the road to looking at Wake in our rearview mirror."
Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a far higher overall poverty level than Wake; just more than 50 percent of its student population is low-income. Wake's student population is about one-third low-income.
At a news conference Thursday, Gorman used charts to show that black, Hispanic and low-income students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, who trailed their counterparts in Wake County and statewide just a few years ago, are now more likely to pass exams than students in those same groups in Wake, Guilford County and statewide. The shift has been especially striking in high schools.
Gorman said the test-score trend shows it's more important to improve teaching in those schools than to shuffle students.
"I think the conclusion is you teach your way to greatness," he said. "That's the only way to get there."
White students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are performing as well as those in Wake.
Look to Charlotte
Terry Stoops, an education policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh, said it's time for Wake to see what it can learn from Charlotte.
"It's time that Wake stops talking about itself as the best school district in the state and becomes more like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which is the best school district," Stoops said. "If we look at student achievement, we have to look at how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools outperforms Wake."
State testing numbers released Thursday showed that 29 of the Charlotte system's 166 schools - mostly located in suburban neighborhoods - scored overall passing rates of 90 percent or higher, a larger proportion than in Wake.
But Charlotte-Mecklenburg also had nine high-poverty neighborhood schools with total passing rates of 50 percent or lower; Wake had none.
'Educating all students'
David Holdzkom, Wake County's assistant superintendent for evaluation and research, noted that about 65 percent of the Wake district's schools had passing rates of more than 75 percent on the past school year's state tests. Charlotte's equivalent figure was about 46 percent.
"We're focused on educating all students," Holdzkom said.
Test scores shows that Charlotte has often surpassed Wake's overall pass rates on same-group comparisons, while coping with rising numbers of high-poverty schools. But white and non-poor students continue to outperform black, Hispanic and low-income ones by large margins.
The guiding principles
On Tuesday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board is scheduled to vote on final approval of a list of guiding principles for assigning students.
Six of nine board members said last week that proximity to a student's home should top the list, while three others, including the two African-Americans on the board, want diversity in schools' population as the highest priority.
Leaders of the Wake majority have said they have no intention of creating high-poverty schools but have consistently turned down efforts to include any measure of diversity in their developing plan.
"I don't see that as being a compromise if you don't include diversity somehow," said Carlene Lucas, who lost to majority member John Tedesco in the first round of last year's Wake school board elections. "I don't see where there's any consideration for the low-income people."
Lucas campaigned on the idea of controlled choice, but it gained little reaction until one of the concept's founders, Massachusetts educational consultant Michael Alves, came to Raleigh to introduce his ideas to school board members and other groups. Lucas said the way Wake's plan is being developed makes her doubt that the system will adopt Alves' model, which leans heavily on diverse attendance zones and strong community buy-in.
"I would only support it if diversity were included," she said.
Era of change
In Wake County, Republican-backed candidates swept into office last fall on a tide of discontent with long bus rides for some students, frequent reassignments and complaints that the previous board and administration had ignored parents' concerns. Defeating candidates closely tied to Democratic politics and Raleigh business interests, the new board immediately started changing policies that had been designed to avoid concentrations of low-income students in specific schools.
The extra resources that Charlotte's system devoted to high-poverty schools would likely be hard to come by, opponents of the new plan have said.
"Most parents in the black community would have no problem with neighborhood schools if it meant that they would be funded equally," Raleigh businessman and activist Bruce Lightner said in a letter to the board majority. "Unfortunately, there is well founded concern, based on past experiences, that the lion's share of the resources would go to the more affluent, predominately white schools."
Charlotte's upheaval in student assignment was driven by years of court battles over a white father's claim that his daughter had been kept out of a nearby magnet school because of her race.
"The Choice Plan" that emerged in 2002 was an extensive controlled-choice plan based on what was known as the SPUD formula: Stability, proximity, utilization and diversity were taken into account in drawing boundaries and making assignments.
Board members created Byzantine rules for awarding seats in the magnet lottery, with the admission priorities based on poverty, academic achievement and location of students and schools.
The board eventually scaled back the "choice" aspects of student assignment, realizing that they led to dramatic overcrowding in some schools and empty seats in others.
Even under court-ordered desegregation, Charlotte-Mecklenburg had some schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students - just as Wake does now. But that number increased dramatically in the first year of the "choice plan" and continued to rise for several years after.
Under the race-neutral choice plan, most students in the affluent suburbs were happy with their assigned schools, while those assigned to center-city urban schools were much more likely to apply for magnets or non-magnets in other neighborhoods. One result: Suburban schools quickly became overcrowded, surrounded by encampments of classroom trailers.
A new Charlotte-Mecklenburg majority took office last year. The board is still arguing about the most important factors in assignments, rating proximity as the priority, followed by stability, diversity and utilization.
Clusters of zones
The majority on Wake's board continues to hold exhaustive meetings and community sessions as its members work toward a plan that they say will benefit all students, without hiding poor achievers among affluent, mostly white students via busing. Far more worthwhile, they say, will be a choice system with clusters of equally strong schools in zones across the county.
"We've been saying the entire time that our system was not going to create any more high-poverty schools," said John Tedesco, a board member who has taken the lead in adopting a modified controlled-choice model.
Those who question the plan for community zones note that Southeast Raleigh contains a large percentage of the county's minority and low-income population.
"This whole diversity thing can't be done simply by neighborhood," said Dornan, the public schools forum official. "I just can't see how Wake can avoid a rerun of exactly what happened in Charlotte. They immediately ended up with a bunch of high-poverty schools."
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