In trying to set the terms of an accreditation review that is key to upholding the reputation of its high schools, the Wake County school board runs the proverbial risk of cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Defying the accrediting agency or failing to reach agreement over how the review will unfold raises the distinct possibility that this valuable seal of approval would be withdrawn or have to be surrendered.
That would put a needless drag on students' prospects for college admission, scholarships and loans. And it would send a disconcerting signal to people sizing up Wake's public schools - think of executives considering whether to move their companies here - that some screws have come loose.
The agency, AdvancED, is a major player in evaluating schools, with 25,000 schools nationwide holding its accreditation. It is putting the Wake system through an unusual wringer in response to a complaint by the state chapter of the NAACP. The core of the dispute involves the Wake board's decision last year to abandon a policy meant to keep school enrollments socioeconomically balanced, and whether the board has abided by its own rules.
The board's 5-4 majority favors a neighborhood school approach, but the NAACP fears an unhealthy return to economic and racial segregation.
AdvancED seeks a boatload of information from the school system about assignment practices and other matters. With lawyers guiding its strategy, the board has asked the agency to narrow its review and put conditions on how it would work.
Not surprisingly, the agency says no dice. And in fact, if the whole idea behind accreditation is to have a school system's educational quality, resources and governing procedures evaluated by an independent third party - which is the idea - then the system can't be setting the review's terms.
Anne McLaurin, a member of the board's minority that wants to retain diversity as a factor in student assignments, makes a good point when she says that if the system has nothing to hide, it should just let the accreditation team come on. In the end, cooperation with the agency is essential.
Some wisdom also comes from member Carolyn Morrison, who emphasizes the importance of retaining accreditation. If AdvancED reaches an unfavorable finding, Morrison says, the system could challenge it through the courts.
It's stunning to think that a school system that can be seen as North Carolina's flagship in public education would find its accreditation in jeopardy. And perhaps Wake can answer AdvancED's questions satisfactorily.
Yet as Morrison pointed out, the school board's majority in its year-plus in control has made one dubious decision after another, capped by revoking the diversity policy and creating the risk of academically unhealthy high-poverty schools. Accreditation is not meant to override the board's authority to set policy, but it should be a worthwhile check on practices that could steer the system into the ditch.