Schools feud on the air follows familiar themes

STAFF WRITERAugust 13, 2010 

— When John Tedesco and the Rev. William Barber started an exchange of positions on education, achievement, race and growth Thursday in a WRAL television studio, the talk didn't stop even when the cameras stopped rolling.

A taping of the political talk show "NC Spin" focused on different ideas about how Wake County should run its schools - those expressed by a recently elected school board majority or those represented by the NAACP and backers of the previous school board.

"You are fixing something that isn't broken," state NAACP chief Barber, 46, said to Wake County school board member Tedesco, 35, as the taping ended and conversation continued.

Tedesco, a former town manager and executive of a nonprofit agency, and other new board members took control of the board after fall elections, with incumbent Ron Margiotta as chairman.

Majority members opted from theboard's first meetings to move quickly on their constituents' discontent with a diversity-based assignment system, mandatory year-round schools and the perception that former board members did not listen closely enough to families' concerns.

Tedesco argued Thursday that he and other board members had learned of voters' concerns during months of campaigning and public meetings before the board took action.

"We talked with thousands of people at that time and we came in feeling confident about the direction the community wanted," he said during the taping. "What we wanted to do was focus more on providing stability. And we wanted to provide fair choice for families. Families need to think they can work with us, not against us."

The atmosphere grew heated at times. Barber raised concerns that Tedesco and other new board members could deny some children their rights under the state constitution to a sound basic education.

"What we want is high quality constitutional, diverse, well-funded schools for every child," he said. "What we saw happen was that from day one ... the board voted to move from a socioeconomic diversity plan."

Tedesco and Barber are among the highest-profile figures in the controversy over the direction of Wake County's 140,000-student school system, but not the only ones. Also taking part in the discussion were "NC Spin" host Tom Campbell along with analysts John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, and Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal think tank.

Hood waged a pointed attack on the overall quality of the Wake schools, citing test scores.

"Wake County's system failed," Hood said. "Wake County's poor students do worse than the state average. It is a failure."

Fitzsimon defended the system's record, noting that a decline in test scores and an increasing achievement gap occurred after rampaging student population growth found an underfunded system unprepared. High-poverty schools resulted, he said.

There was some mutual acknowledgment of problems in the schools.

"Do we need to fix schools? Yes, we do," Barber said, but not by creating more high-poverty schools.

Host Campbell pressed Tedesco to say whether he agreed.

"Sure," Tedesco said.

Asked for solutions, Tedesco and Barber retreated to familiar formulations.

"We need fairness; we need equity," Tedesco said.

Barber recited a list of commitments that would have to be upheld intentionally: diversity, high-performing schools, parental and community involvement.

He repeated his suggestion to make a new start instead of following the current board's discard of the diversity-based assignment plan.

"Rescind the vote; put a plan together, because you don't have a plan," Barber said.

The new Republican-backed board has shown little willingness to venture from the path members promised during and since elections that ousted a board with close Democratic ties.

Proponents of the former board and its policies argue that the community-based assignment system will lead to higher numbers of schools attended mostly by low-income and minority students.

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

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