Wake school board to vote on changing student assignment plan

khui@newsobserver.comJune 19, 2012 

  • The story so far Up to the 1990s, Wake County bused students for racial diversity. The school board switched to family income in 2000 with the goal of trying to limit a school from having more than 40 percent of its students receiving subsidized lunches. In 2009, a new Republican board majority takes office and the following year eliminates diversity from the student assignment policy. In October 2011, the school board votes to implement a new controlled-choice plan for the 2012-13 school year. Instead of assigning students to a specific school, families rank from a list of choices. In December 2011, a new Democratic board majority takes office but says it’s too late in the process to block implementation of the new choice plan for this fall. On Tuesday, the school board will vote on a directive telling staff to switch back to an address-based assignment plan that would include trying to balance schools by student achievement and socioeconomics. Click here to see the directive.

Here’s what years of heated debate about finding a new way to assign Wake County public school students may be about to bring – a chastened version of the old plan.

The Wake County school board is preparing to consider scrapping its new choice-based assignment plan. Instead, the recently elected Democratic board majority may ask staff to develop a plan for the 2013-14 school year that would look much like the prior plan. That plan assigned schools by address and encouraged diversity in the student population of each school.

But in an acknowledgment of complaints about the old plan, the new version will try to assign students to schools within “a reasonable distance” of their homes and encourage “stability” in assignments.

A vote on directing staff to plan for the switch is scheduled for Tuesday’s school board meeting. The agenda item, a two-page document, provides only a bare outline of how the new plan would work. The details would be developed by the school system’s staff.

The change would mean abandoning after only one year an assignment plan that had families rank their preferred schools from a list of choices. The current plan aims to give families a choice in schools and ensure they would know where their children would go to school until they graduated. But the plan abandoned the previous commitment to diversity and created confusion in the real estate market about how homes connect to schools.

“We’ve been saying all along that once we have the data and see where the student assignment plan is taking us, we’d review it and see where we can improve it,” said school board chairman Kevin Hill, whose re-election in a November runoff helped give Democrats a 5-4 majority.

It could be the latest shift for how the state’s largest school district assigns its 150,000 students. The proposal drew immediate criticism from Republican board members who brought about the new choice plan that will govern assignments in the 2012-13 school year.

“I’m not surprised this (is) something they are willing to do,” said Republican school board member John Tedesco. “We’ve known for a long time they’ve wanted to go back to the failed policy of busing and telling families where they should go to school instead of having them choose.”

Choice plan’s supporters

Supporters of the choice plan say it isn’t being given enough time to see how it will work. They say reverting to a version of the old plan will bring back the days where families worried about being reassigned each year. Tedesco and Chris Malone, a fellow GOP board member, said some revisions are understandable in the choice plan but there is no need to scrap it.

The choice plan emerged after the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce hired education consultant Michael Alves to develop a model to end the bickering between board members on what to adopt. Schools superintendent Tony Tata took elements of Alves’ plan into the model later adopted by the board.

Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said that dropping the choice plan so soon could undermine public support for giving more money to the school system.

“The more confusion and instability there is in the system, the more difficult it is to build critical mass for more funding,” he said.

Wake had a long history of assigning students for diversity, first through race and later socioeconomics. Wake tried, with varying degrees of success, to limit schools from having more than 40 percent of their students receiving subsidized lunches.

But anger over thousands of students being reassigned to different schools each year — mostly due to growth instead of diversity — helped elect a Republican board majority in 2009.

The elimination of the diversity policy sparked protests, arrests, national media coverage and an ongoing federal civil rights investigation. But critics of the diversity-based plan pointed to poor graduation rates and test scores among low-income students and said it was time for a different approach.

The Republican majority, backed by two Democrats not running for office, voted in October to implement a new controlled-choice plan.

A new Democratic majority swept into office last fall but said it was too late to delay implementing the choice plan for the 2012-13 school year.

Republican school board members have said that most Wake families are satisfied with the new plan. They’ve also said it will end reassignments.

Choice plan’s critics

But the choice plan also generated a range of critics, including real-estate agents who complained not having base schools was hurting home sales and families who didn’t get into the schools they wanted.

“When you get your third- or fourth-choice school, don’t tell me that’s not reassignment,” Hill said. “We’re just not calling it reassignment.”

The new choice plan has also drawn complaints from families who were leaving charter schools, private schools and home schools. Under the old plan, they would have gone to their base school. But they found themselves having to apply and sometimes not getting their closest school.

The directive says newcomers, like all existing students, will have a “reasonable degree of predictability” by having a base school assignment.

‘Unfavorable trends’

The new directive would also try to address the concerns that have been raised about schools becoming more segregated under the choice plan.

“I’m looking at some of the numbers, and it seems that we’ve got some unfavorable trends,” Hill said.

The directive says academic achievement targets will be developed “to determine a range for optimal school performance.” The directive also says the board will “revisit” the student assignment policy to “develop appropriate socio-economic factors.”

Since federal officials have told Wake they can no longer use school lunch data for student assignment, the directive says alternatives such as U.S. Census data and/or data provided by parents such as their income or their education level may be used.

“The goal of this plan is to also ensure that every student in the Wake County Public School System attends a healthy school,” according to the directive.

Tedesco said it’s “going back to forced busing.”

But Christine Kushner, one of the new Democratic board members, says one of the goals of an assignment plan should be to prevent the creation of additional high-poverty schools.

“We’ve been very deliberative,” Kushner said. “We didn’t rush in and make precipitous decisions. We’ve looked at the data. Now is the time to look at where we are and go forward.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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