The numbers are not definitive, but theyre not insignificant. Under the new student assignment plan for Wake County schools, based on projections for the incoming kindergarten class, parental choice will result in large racial imbalances in some schools. Thats because the assignment plan as formulated by a board majority elected in 2009 does not include an economic diversity factor in its configurations.
That plan drops the traditional approach to assignment, linking a home address to a specific school, in favor of parental choice from a menu of schools drawn up by the central office. A big question was whether choice would lead to a resegregation of public education in a county that had long succeeded with an assignment model that tried to ensure some economic, and thus racial, diversity in schools.
And what is known for certain is that when schools are largely populated by low-income students, those students dont do as well as they do when they are in a more diverse student body.
After the Republican-aligned group that pushed for the choice plan lost control in 2011, the new Democratic majority tried to give the plan a chance. But the resegregation some feared appears now to be a real risk. Heres one result: Lacy Elementary School in Raleigh will see the percentage of its kindergarten classes move from 64 percent white to 84 percent white. At Farmington Woods in Cary, the percentage would go from 46 percent white to 69 percent white. Leesville Roads numbers will match those.
And at some schools that already have had large minority populations, the percentages of minority students will increase.
Superintendent Tony Tata pushed for implementation of a new assignment plan (directed by the former conservative Republican majority that hired him), but says he will work with his new boards directive to modify it. He says the choices made by parents of all economic backgrounds to opt for schools closer to their homes could be about their intention to be more involved in their kids schools.
Maybe so, but Wake County cannot, must not, tolerate anything that smacks of racial and economic imbalance, leaving some schools with overwhelming numbers of disadvantaged students.
Will these first kindergarten numbers forecast similar statistics in upper grades, and middle school and high school breakdowns with considerable racial and economic concentrations and imbalance? How could they not, given the choice plan?
The new board majority already has signaled its intention to modify the plan as it exists for the 2013-24 school year. Diversity will again become a factor considered in assignments, along with student achievement, stability and proximity. And another significant change will return to the use of addresses in determining base schools.
Can a degree of parental choice be preserved, as the board says it intends? Reconciling all those goals will take creativity and a determination to find common ground especially as the system, even in hard economic times, continues its rapid growth, with 151,000 students now.
Reaching a community consensus on assignment is doubly important given that soon enough, voters will need to show their support for the system by approving a construction bond issue. Board chairman Kevin Hill estimates that more than 20 schools will have to be built over the next eight years.
If anything, the new majority has been more cautious in changing and shaping policy than it might have been expected to be. And thats fine.
But now, with evidence from kindergarten assignment choices that high-poverty, high-needs schools might emerge, its clear that prompt action to modify the assignment plan was called for to avert a troubling trend.
For Superintendent Tata, this is a tough spot. Hes been adamant in defending the plan that he and his staff developed, but the retired Army brigadier general is a realist and has agreed to adjust. He also has worked to smooth hard feelings left by his now-former bosses, which has earned him the respect of the entire board, some clashes with Democrats aside.
Republicans who ran the board for two years backed radical change, and they were taught a lesson in the next election. But from here on out, the focus must be not on politics, but on running the best system there can be, with the fairest and most sensible assignment plan at its foundation.