Point of View

School plan: Not so fast

October 18, 2011 

— Voters in last week's Wake County school board elections sent a message that they want civility, good governance and thoughtful decision-making. Despite that, the current board majority and its defeated chairman are forcing a vote on the school choice plan this week, before new board members can take office.

Superintendent Tony Tata is engaged in aggressive lobbying that is highly unusual for a school superintendent. Many people are wondering, "Why the rush?"

Parents need to understand this: if the plan passes, there will no longer be guaranteed "base school" assignment for a family's home address. Instead, there will be a menu of schools that you can apply for. No specific school will be guaranteed.

Ideally, each school will be an attractive choice. But how long will that last? Will families quietly accept it when the inevitable happens and many of them do not get their first choice?

A choice-based assignment plan demands a level of active parent engagement that we have never had before. Parents will need to become informed consumers who rank their preferences for their child's school assignment within the constraints of a predetermined list of five or more schools.

Given the active role that parents will play, we must have broad "buy-in" and enthusiasm if we want a successful assignment plan in the long-term.

Reasonable people have expressed misgivings about the plan. For some, there is a fundamental discomfort with applying a free market ideology to the public school system. As scholar Diane Ravitch recently argued in a public address at Duke, competition works well for selling consumer goods, like cars or computers. It is less appropriate as a model for public education.

Schools and teachers work best when they collaborate, when they share methods and ideas, when they work toward the common goal of educating all children, and when one school's success does not depend on another school's failure.

In short, there are winners and losers in the market, but surely we do not want to create "winner" schools and "loser" schools. Will the school choice plan do anything to prevent that from happening, or will it make things worse? We need to see more evidence that this plan will bring healthy change, not corrosive change.

Others are more comfortable with the idea of a choice model, but have questions about its practical application. For example: what will my school choices be? Will those choices change over time or remain constant? Will transportation be available to each of the schools I might end up with? What is my feeder pattern?

What happens if my child is assigned to my last choice school and I am unhappy with it? What will the new choice plan cost, especially if - despite promises to the contrary - it ends up leading to the creation of high-poverty schools that are far more expensive to operate?

Despite several informational meetings, many parents remain confused about the school choice plan because they perceive it to be a moving target. The plan has changed many times in recent weeks, and some of the most important details, like cost, remain unspecified.

Finally, some are open to the concept of a choice plan and confident that the details can be fleshed out in the hands of competent school staff, but question the speed with which the plan is being put to the board for approval. Something about the haste and urgency of approving the plan now, before the newly elected board members can weigh in, seems inappropriate and undemocratic.

Everyone is eager to move forward with a plan that solves the problems of the past, including too frequent reassignments. Most people also want a plan that will avoid creating self-inflicted damage. Most notably, it is important not to create a system of have and have-not schools in the name of offering parents more "choice." Is the Wake school choice plan that plan? Based on the facts that have been revealed so far, we simply do not know.

No one can doubt the importance of getting this right. Nor can anyone doubt the ability of this community, when it works together, to get it right. So let's move forward with a new plan - but not until questions are answered, costs are fleshed out and parents can understand how it will work. If 94 percent of families are satisfied with their current school assignment, the rational and prudent thing to do is take the time to do it right.

W. Swain Wood, an attorney in Raleigh, was lead counsel in the open meetings case filed against the Wake County Board of Education. He is the parent of three students in the school system.

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