The Wake County school boards narrow majority of Democrats used its first six months in office to take the new controlled choice student assignment plan for a test drive.
The farther they went, the more things they found that they didnt like. Eventually they decided that if this was the model they were going to buy, it would need some work.
But will it be a tune-up, or a new motor?
The five board members who make up the controlling bloc could have done more to reassure Wake residents weary of the assignment wrangle that they want to build on hard-won progress, not go back to square one.
Instead their timing was clumsy and invited critics to suspect the worst. They approved a late-night directive calling for major changes in assignment guidelines, acting with little advance warning and little chance for outside feedback.
Not surprisingly, supporters of the controlled choice approach such as the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce were disappointed. The business community wants excellent schools, but it also wants to get Wake County off the national radar as a place where education has become a political battleground.
Squeaks and rattles
Controlled choice was itself a gratefully received compromise after a previous effort by a Republican-dominated board exploded into controversy, amid accusations that it would sacrifice the well-being of students from poor families in the name of neighborhood schools.
When Democrats reclaimed power on the board, they opted to let the choice plan go forward. But after the plan went into operation, it turned out to have several aspects that the majority members couldnt get comfortable with. That was the impetus for their directive giving Superintendent Tony Tata and his staff until September to revise the process of assigning students to their various schools. Which will make for a busy summer.
The requested changes have worthy goals. Notably, there would be a rededication to the idea that no schools should become places where most of the students come from low-income families.
The effort to avoid so-called high-poverty schools, where the obstacles to student success can be especially daunting, was a hallmark of Wakes assignment policy for decades until it became a lightning rod exploited by winning Republican candidates in 2009. But the quest for diversity was not the main reason the school system had shuffled many students among schools, angering some parents who wanted predictable assignments close to home. The real cause was the systems rapid growth. Students had to be moved around to fill new schools.
The new directive simply says the board will develop appropriate socio-economic factors to consider in the assignment process, with the goal that every student attends a healthy school. Board members backing the change said they had seen warning signs that under the choice plan, high-poverty schools were likely to emerge. If thats the case, then prompt action to forestall that trend was called for.
Many families were able to land acceptable schools under the choice plan, and that plan has the chief virtues of empowering families and promising a stable path through the grades. Yet it hasnt pleased everyone, including vocal real estate interests who say that not tying each address to a certain school is a turn-off to homebuyers.
The board responds by resurrecting the concept of base schools for each neighborhood. If it ends up with a plan that gives families the extra certainty many want, along with practical options to exercise choice, it will have moved toward a consensus on student assignment that would serve the county well.