Two years ago the Wake County school board election results sent shock waves through the county and state. About 12 percent of registered voters voted, and 7 percent changed the direction of a nationally recognized and honored school district. Since then, the superintendent resigned, the new majority bickered in public and comedian Stephen Colbert ridiculed Wake County and its new dis-integration approach to education. With its new majority, the board has spent most of the two years trying to bring about neighborhood schools.
Why parents should vote
About 30 percent of registered voters have children in K-12 education, the great majority of those in Wake's 160+ public schools. These parents should be a selfish group - they only want what is best for their child. That starts with electing school board members.
Historically, our school boards have tried to make all schools strong by limiting the percentage of low-income children in any one school (low income highly correlates with low academic performance and higher teacher burnout). This has been done primarily through the magnet program, which allows affluent suburban children to be voluntarily bused into high-poverty areas. To make room for them, some low-income children get bused out of their neighborhoods to suburban schools. In other words, it is a system driven by parental choice that offers a range of options for a high-quality education.
If the school board approves the new student assignment model endorsed by Superintendent Tony Tata, with its emphasis on proximity and achievement, we should be OK. However, if the school board majority pushes for neighborhood schools that ignore achievement as a factor, or if we elect more political ideologues, parents will be happy only if they live in the right neighborhood.
Then the likelihood of more high-poverty schools with lower academic performance, school failure and declining property values greatly increases. In this scenario, parental choice will inevitably be limited. There will be a mass exodus from some schools by families seeking limited seats in the new, more desirable schools. Charlotte provides proof. This is exactly what happened there. We will become a school system of haves and have-nots, and the resulting decline in some neighborhoods will occur. Some parents will be safe and happy; many others will not. Which will you be?
Why nonparents should vote
Most of us love living in Wake County. We enjoy a reasonable cost of living, low crime, very low taxes, temperate climate, good K-12 education, excellent colleges, arts, entertainment, etc. And we tend to take it for granted. Good planning and decision-making got us to this point, and it will take excellent public schools to secure our quality of life for the future.
Today, people can move to Wake County and live just about anywhere and enjoy the benefits. There are very few residential areas to avoid. Once we start having high-poverty schools, we start becoming like every other large city: Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Nashville, Philadelphia, you name it. It always starts like it is here now with the nice-sounding neighborhood schools.
The two main arguments for neighborhood schools are meant to fool us into being unconcerned:
1) Such schools will mean lower bus transportation costs, saving millions in tax dollars. Baloney! When the new school zones are finished next year, bus transportation costs for 100,000 kids who request it might save a little money, but it will not be much. And if it does, that money likely reverts to the state.
2) It is not fair to those low-income families to bus their children away from home to make room for suburban kids. Not fair? What's not fair is to make low-income children all go to school together (dis-integration) where there are no PTAs, no booster clubs and not nearly enough great teachers who can tolerate the lack of student interest and parental involvement year after year. For a school board member to claim that he wants high-poverty schools so he can raise private dollars to help those schools is lunacy - ask the resigned Charlotte superintendent.
All it takes is a start down the path of failing schools and along with that will come more crime, more bad areas to live in and a well-deserved declining reputation for our community. We'll wake up in 10 years and wonder what happened to our great place to live.
Wake County means a lot to me; I want to keep what we have that works. I hope you will vote Oct. 11 to preserve our school system - it is critical to our future.
Tom Oxholm, a Wake County school board member from 1999 to 2003, is chief financial officer of Wake Stone Corp. in Knightdale. He lives in Raleigh.