Point of View

How to keep Wake schools' edge

October 13, 2010 

— Republicans, independents and Democrats alike have toiled for decades to make the Wake County Public School System among the very best large districts in the U.S. in terms of test scores and graduation rates. All Wake County residents share an interest in sustaining this success.

While Research Triangle Park may serve as the region's economic engine, WCPSS has ensured that the engine runs smoothly. Knowledge workers moving to this area understand that by residing in Wake County, their children will have access to excellent public schools.

Unfortunately, WCPSS' success has sowed seeds of discord that could ultimately bring it down. With the vast majority of the region's growth concentrated in Wake County, school assignment has become increasingly difficult, particularly at the epicenter of growth in western Wake County. Repeated reassignments have produced legions of angry parents looking for relief.

Last year, Republican school board candidates seized on the anger and, under the banner of "neighborhood schools," gained control of the board. One of the board's first acts was to strike down the policy that has served as the cornerstone of WCPSS' success: ensuring racial and economic balance in our schools.

Based on this policy decision, it is impossible to see how any assignment plan can avoid schools with concentrations of economically disadvantaged populations, given demographic distributions in the county.

It is generally agreed that a "tipping point" occurs at the school and system level when poor and minority students make up over 40 percent of the school population. Once the tipping point is crossed, middle-class (and predominantly white) families begin to withdraw from the system, taking their time, energy and resources with them.

To see what could be in Wake County's future, look no further than Mecklenburg, Forsythe and Guilford counties. These school districts are all majority-minority. Each year, fewer and fewer white and middle-class families send their children to public school. Except for those few schools in the "right" neighborhoods, public schools increasingly serve only those who cannot afford private school.

In stark contrast, a majority of the students in Wake County schools are white and only 31 percent are low income. Without WCPSS' policy of maintaining racial and economic balance, the demographics inside our schools would not reflect those of the county's population. That's what has made WCPSS so unique among large districts in the U.S. and been the key to its success.

The tipping point explains why the school board's actions have shaken the local business community to its core. If middle-class families abandon the WCPSS, the region will be less desirable to the highly mobile knowledge workers, dealing a blow to our economic engine.

Adding to anxiety over the tipping point is the board majority's governing style. Significant policy decisions are made with little discussion or public input. This dictatorial style has led to a review of WCPSS' accreditation, lawsuits, outbursts directed at fellow board members and possibly contributed to the loss of magnet school funding. Unfortunately for many who have worked hard to build up WCPSS, it's akin to watching a slow motion train wreck.

Support for schools should not be a partisan issue. However, looking back over the course of history, one party stands out in its support of public education. Leaders, including Frank Porter Graham, Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt at the state level, and Vernon Malone, Harriett Webster, Barbara Allen, Al Adams and Ruth Cook at the local level, stand out. Their efforts include strategic investments in public education, raising teacher pay, a focus on early childhood education and, of course, maintaining racial and economic balance in our schools. They also understood the importance of public involvement and working across party lines.

As the assignment issue unfolds in the coming months, the Democratic Party will uphold two fundamental principles. First, we will resist any assignment plan that produces high-poverty schools and takes Wake County toward the tipping point. Second, we will actively work to foster public engagement and input in the decision-making process in a transparent and inclusive manner.

No single person or interest group, including political party, has all of the answers. Moreover, WCPSS is not sacrosanct. Its policies must be constantly reviewed and updated. Clearly, school assignment requires careful scrutiny and reform.

However, Wake County cannot afford to allow anger over reassignment to drive policy-making. Every day we see examples of how quickly a city or region's fortunes can change. This area has always exhibited exceptional foresight and leadership in making the right decisions at critical junctures. Let's keep that record going.

Mack Paul is chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party.

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