Point of view

A better course for Wake schools

October 3, 2010 

Wait, I've seen this movie before - and it doesn't end well. The Wake County school board's draft student assignment maps are out. It appears this approach would give us more high-poverty and racially segregated schools, fewer magnet seats in downtown schools and the continued need for significant busing. To quote Yogi Berra, "it's déjà vu all over again." This is the Charlotte story.

However, to hear the Wake board tell it, recent progress in student performance in Charlotte proves that achieving balance in student assignment doesn't matter. It's a stunningly cynical conclusion. And it's wrong.

In 2005, four years after the assignment plan was put into place, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning described Charlotte as guilty of "academic genocide" and demanded local and state officials take immediate action. In the past four years, under the leadership of Superintendent Pete Gorman, the district has taken aggressive and innovative steps to improve teacher and principal effectiveness, turn around failing schools and raise student performance. Progress is being made, and the superintendent and board deserve praise for their commitment to aggressive and sustained action.

But, make no mistake: Charlotte's student assignment plan was not part of the solution - it was part of the problem. Progress has resulted from actions taken to address challenges created in part by the assignment plan. It has also meant higher levels of local spending in Charlotte than in Wake ($429 more per student according to latest state data). The result? Levels of performance that Wake has had for years.

Which prompts the question: Why do we want to repeat this history? If anything, the lesson is that the Wake board majority's approach will make the challenge of improving student performance a lot harder. Harder to attract and keep teachers. Harder to educate students in schools with vastly increased numbers of students with academic challenges. Harder to build broad support for school bonds and investment in public education.

And not only will student achievement suffer, but also home prices and business recruitment. Why else would the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce agree to help foot the bill on a consultant to draw up a student assignment plan that provides stability and student diversity? The chamber is acting to safeguard the quality of our local work force and attractiveness of the county.

My preference would be to learn from the Charlotte story, skip the student assignment scenes and go straight to the part about aggressive reform and innovation. It would be exciting to have a school board that leads a community debate about the best strategy to prepare all students for the world of work and higher education. But this is where Wake's similarities with Charlotte appear to end.

While the Wake board is at home talking about how to change maps and zones, it seems unwilling - or unable - to discuss how to improve teaching and learning. This board has no plan for addressing student achievement and graduation rates. Nothing. It is taking no action to better prepare our students for college and careers. None. The current board majority came into office arguing that Wake's diversity policy was not working and that student assignment was no strategy for student achievement. Their response: a new student assignment policy. Are they serious?

Across America, there has been an unprecedented level of innovation in public education over the past year. From the Race to the Top reform competition for states, to the i3 innovation grants for districts and nonprofits, to scores of exciting school system efforts, we are in the midst of an era of aggressive innovation.

In Wake County? Nothing. It's as if we are living in a bubble, oblivious to the innovation happening all around us. Our teachers and principals deserve better. Our students, communities and businesses stand to suffer from this profound lack of leadership on the reform front.

Given the reality that we are going to adopt some kind of new assignment plan, we should demand two things from the board:

1Don't repeat Charlotte's mistakes and implement a plan that costs more and makes teachers' jobs harder. There is no valid educational or job readiness rationale for increasing high-poverty and racially segregated schools. And with a growing county and a plan that looks to still include significant busing, there is no fiscal rationale, either.

2Get serious about aggressive action to improve student performance. We should expect more from our school board majority in its first year than some draft maps. After all, when disadvantaged students who are base students in the Southeast Raleigh magnet schools are assigned to their same schools under this new plan, do school board members expect their performance to magically improve?

Doing only one thing at a time means children would wait three years for the board to turn to student performance. That's half a student's elementary career, three-quarters of high school or an entire middle school experience. That's a dereliction of duty.

Based on the board majority's current vision, we could have an assignment plan that doesn't significantly reduce busing, increases high-poverty and segregated schools and delivers all the challenges that Charlotte experienced. And with no bold action to improve student performance. That's not good enough for Wake County. Let's write our own script.

J.B. Buxton is an education consultant and former deputy state superintendent for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

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