Point of View

Wake schools' blue option isn't an automatic choice

June 10, 2011 

New Superintendent Tony Tata has spearheaded an effort to develop a student assignment policy that balances competing needs in the Wake County Public School System. Recognizing seasoned staff members' talents and competence, Tata wisely relied on them to develop nine options. Two emerged as front-runners: the Blue and Green "courses of action," although there was no detailed explanation regarding dropping the remainder.

It was quickly apparent that Tata favors the Blue option.

Superficially, the Wake school system provided much information: countywide maps of various parameters, estimates of population growth and colored charts illustrating value judgments pertaining to 18 selection criteria. Model simulations provide reports of schools that children may be able to attend. Feeder patterns to middle and high schools were significantly delayed and, by providing more sample options, seem to be stacked in favor of the Blue plan.

We are repeatedly warned that these school choices are only hypothetical samples. Therefore, it is premature to responsibly "vote" for a plan that would serve the best interests of all of Wake County's families at this stage.

Too much is missing: real cost information on transportation and outreach activities; actual school choices; computer algorithm details that will be applied to control parent choices; information about how magnet programs will be defined and used in the new plans; the odds of getting into a first- or second-choice school; how choices will change when popular schools are "closed out," which is functionally the same as capping; the estimated number of incremental high-poverty schools created by each plan; and how money will be allocated across schools.

Contrary to the rhetoric on transportation savings, experience in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools indicates that choice plans increased transportation costs and split neighborhoods as families chose schools throughout the county. Controlled choice expert Michael Alves, citing the experience of other school districts that implemented such plans, indicated that only about 85 percent of students get their first or second choice. In Wake, a school district of approximately 145,000 students, about 21,750 (15 percent) of students will not get their first or second choice, disaffecting far more than the 5.2 percent of parents who noted dissatisfaction in last year's parent survey. In year two of Charlotte's choice plan, 27 schools (20 percent) were underselected by parents; students were assigned to schools that they had not chosen.

The Blue plan can be easily manipulated to generate costly high-poverty, racially isolated schools filled with low-achieving students because it does not ensure that our most vulnerable students will be in high-quality educational environments. This demonstrates the effect of valuing proximity over school quality and disregarding a balanced academic environment that promotes student achievement.

Superintendent Tata is aware of the resulting cost. The District of Columbia school system (where he previously worked) spends in excess of $17,000 per student to prop up its high-poverty schools - more than double the average amount Wake County currently expends per student - without the achievement of Wake County. With an ever-shrinking budget, the creation of more high-poverty schools via the proximity-focused Blue plan will funnel funds toward high-poverty schools and away from mid- and low-poverty schools.

Will enough seats be saved for students who choose to attend a high-performing school instead of their nearby low-performing school? If so, how many seats will then be taken away from higher-performing neighborhood students' choice schools? How will these competing needs be balanced? Is the uncertainty of not having a base assignment in the Blue plan palatable?

And how will these plans manage growth? Growth has been the root of our problems in Wake County, while a commitment to balanced schools and achievement for all children has been the root of our success. It would be easier to support a modified Green plan that promotes student achievement as its first priority, keeps neighborhoods together and provides choice.

Let's slow down the pace and analyze the options with rigor and appropriate details. There is much more at stake in these plans than "Where will my child go to school?" These plans will affect all Wake County residents through the real estate market, school taxes, the ability to cost-effectively attract high-performing teachers and the allocation of money among schools. This should not be a high-stakes "American Idol" game in which parents make choices that are in the best interest only of their own children and not the school system as a whole.

If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, regardless of whether it is an election year.

Sharon Eckard and Amy Lee are members of Great Schools in Wake Coalition

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