The center must step up for Wake schools

March 17, 2011 

— In the 1970s, our local business, civic and civil rights leaders crafted an agreement to unify the Wake County and city schools - a practical solution reflecting a shared vision of strong schools as a critical part of the region's national reputation as a center of commerce, technology and prosperity. That vision has been validated.

The plan ensured that schools inside Raleigh didn't bear full responsibility for educating low-income students, while also guaranteeing that families priced out of affluent neighborhoods still had access to strong schools in other parts of the county. As other cities across the South, and indeed the nation, struggled with integration and watched families of means decamp for costly private schools, Wake County avoided de facto segregation.

Unfortunately, our school board has lurched backward toward that discredited model, and we run the real risk of wreaking havoc on a system that has worked well for decades.

Forty years ago, Wake County was a much different place, with a smaller population mostly born and raised here and familiar with the area's history and culture. Today, though, we are a sprawling, thriving metropolis whose growth has been fueled in no small part by our superior public education system and attractive tax rates.

This growth has created the challenge of managing a school system that adds thousands of students a year, while also maintaining quality and adhering to the district's guiding principle of economic and racial integration. Without completely dismantling our nationally admired system, school board members over the years have had to add schools where no one imagined neighborhoods even existing, and to reassign students to those new schools - all while maintaining a lower-than-average cost per pupil (measured against both national and state scales) and upholding the quality and appeal of all schools, including those near the urban core.

Over time, these incremental adjustments left some parents feeling shut out of desirable magnet options and vulnerable to what they saw as arbitrary and unpredictable school shuffling. While improvement was clearly needed in assignment processes and schedules, some who were unhappy blamed all school reassignments on the diversity policy, denying the clear truth that opening 48 schools in 10 years to accommodate population growth required reassigning tens of thousands of students from overcrowded schools.

Sadly, many citizens who did understand these growth dynamics and who didn't support radical policy change were complacent, and in 2009 a school board election with a turnout of only about 10 percent was erroneously touted as a mandate for radical change under the guise of "neighborhood schools." We allowed partisans with a broader political agenda, operating without relevant experience or quantitative data to support their policies, to manipulate legitimate concerns about school reassignments into broader sweeping changes.

As the economy improves and companies decide where to grow and where to divest, our region's path to increased (or even sustained) prosperity will depend on our image. We've allowed that image to become tarnished, with national news coverage portraying a deeply divided region with increasing race and class tensions and a public school system at risk - of resegregation and of being forced to pour additional resources into newly high-poverty schools during a period of already overstretched budgets.

Of course, as demonstrated in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, increasing resources for poor schools often is not effective and inevitably leads either to reductions in resources for wealthy schools or higher local taxes, or both. None of those outcomes would be popular with existing residents or the business community. To be clear, what's on the line is the very foundation of our region's future.

To take back our community's future and reputation, we simply must put a stop to narrow-minded, ideological, divisive partisanship on our school board. Business leaders and the vast moderate political center in Wake County must stand up in favor of maintaining socioeconomic balance in school assignments. They must do so not only because numerous studies and most of our educational and spiritual leaders agree that it's the right thing for all of our children; they must also do so to protect our low taxes and to prevent a costly mistake that will negatively impact homeowners and businesses.

They must also speak out in favor of constructive ideas for closing the achievement gap between races and classes, and doing so in a cost-effective way. These goals are not contradictory, but may require us to collaborate on new policies that put the interests of our children first.

Recently, the Wake Education Partnership and its consultant, Michael Alves, have proposed a compromise assignment plan, and some of the groups previously locked in disagreement have shown an encouraging interest in it.

The draft plan is clearly not perfect, and should be challenged and improved by the many school system constituents it must serve. For example, it's not clear how educational quality and student performance will be enhanced by a plan that has four criteria for assignment, with student achievement being the lowest priority of the criteria, apparently to be applied only when the three other criteria haven't already determined the placement of an individual child.

Still, this is a long-awaited starting point for more productive discussion and collaboration, and our new superintendent, Tony Tata, appears to be taking a step in the right direction by saying that his newly appointed assignment team will take that draft plan into consideration, along with other inputs.

Those "other inputs" are what Wake County leaders and citizens must provide while there is a window of opportunity to influence our collective future. Now is the time for a pragmatic message from centrist civic leaders, whatever their political flavor. Our community's national reputation and future prosperity depend on meeting the challenge.

Ann Campbell is president of Campbell Alliance Group, a locally headquartered management consulting firm. Her family includes a recent graduate of Enloe High School, and a student at Ligon Middle School. She is also a member of Great Schools in Wake Coalition.

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