The Democratic majority on the Wake County school board will simultaneously begin work this week on restoring diversity to the student assignment policy and revising a plan that will determine where children will go to school next year.
On Tuesday, a school board committee will discuss changes in the policy that could include revisions that would balance school enrollments by family income, test scores and the numbers of special-education students and those with limited English skills. These potential changes will likely have an effect on a draft 2013-14 student assignment plan the board will also go over Saturday.
The discussions could result in Wake putting in place a plan that resumes the practice discontinued by the former Republican board majority of assigning students to promote diverse schools.
“I’m not under any delusion how easy or hard it’s going to be,” said Democratic board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton. “The devil is in the details and we’ve got a lot of details to do.”
The Republican board members who backed the choice-based plan that’s being phased out say the majority is moving too fast and putting too much emphasis on diversity.
“It took us eight months to put together the choice plan, and people were claiming we were going too quickly,” said Republican board member Chris Malone. “Now we see them trying to get it done in two months. I find it to be quite irresponsible and outrageous.”
The state’s largest school system is at a crossroads in determining how to assign its 150,000 students. The most contentious issue, as has been the case for many years, is what role, if any, the district should play in ensuring diverse schools.
Until the former board majority changed the policy in 2010, one of Wake’s goals was to balance schools by family income. The Republican-led board, with the support of two Democrats, adopted an assignment plan for this school year in which families ranked which schools they’d like to attend from a list of choices.
Arguing the choice plan didn’t do enough to avoid creating schools with large numbers of low-income and low-achieving students, the new majority voted in June to tell staff to come back with a plan for the 2013-14 school year that promotes student achievement as one of its principles. The directive also said the board would revisit the diversity element.
“It’s what we are about as a school board to promote student achievement,” said Christine Kushner, one of three new board members elected last fall who helped put Democrats back in the majority. “Student achievement should be the focus of every policy we put together.”
Initial public hearings delayed
Last week, school administrators presented a draft plan. But amid questions about the lack of details, including how the achievement component would work, the public hearings that were supposed to begin this week were postponed.
A board attorney also advised members that changes in policies on student assignment, student transfers and capping of school enrollment would have to be adopted before the plan could be approved.
Those changes will be discussed Tuesday by the school board’s policy committee.
A revised policy that will be presented by staff Tuesday says the assignment plan should give “consideration” to avoiding high concentrations of low-performing students in a school.
But Democratic board member Jim Martin, the head of the policy committee, said he backs a draft policy he developed that has detailed goals such as:
• Minimum passing rates for the top 25 percent and lowest 25 percent of students at each school.
• Having the number of students at a school who are identified as limited English proficient be within 10 percent of the district average.
• Having the number of special-education students at a school be within 10 percent of the district average.
• Having the percentage of students at a school from “low-wealth” areas be within 10 percent of the district average.
Martin said median family income from census or real estate data could be used to determine wealth. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wake can no longer use data from the school lunch program for student assignment.
‘Missing the point’
Under Martin’s draft policy, schools that exceed the target would be reviewed by the superintendent to see how student assignment could be used to get them back in range.
“Student achievement is vital; that is why we are here,” said Republican school board member Debra Goldman. “But when I start to hear about assigning schools as a way of managing student achievement, I think they are missing the point.
“Achievement has to be at the forefront of everything that we as a board of education do. Busing for achievement, not so much.”
Sutton, the vice chairman, said “in theory” that Martin’s proposal is the right thing to do. But he said it might be very difficult to put Martin’s ideas into effect.
“Sometimes you have policies that are very descriptive,” Sutton said. “Other times you want to give more flexibility and leeway on how to implement it.”
Malone warned that adopting achievement goals such as those Martin proposed would just “aggravate parents.”
“If you raise the student achievement pillar too high, that’s a problem,” Malone said. “You’re going to have people thinking their kids will be moved if they’re too smart or too challenged.”
Democratic board Chairman Kevin Hill said he agrees on the need to avoid having too many low-performing children in any school. But he said that some “give and take” may be needed on what’s included in the policy.
In addition to achievement, the other pillars of the new plan are stability and proximity.
“I’d like to see the end result be something that can quell the fears of the county, something that gives families a chance to go to their neighborhood schools,” Goldman said. “I don’t view children as the resources that should be moved. High-quality teachers and high-quality construction materials are the resources that should be moved.”
Kushner stressed that there’s support for allowing all students to stay at their current school next year, no matter the policy changes.
A timeline proposed by staff had the board approving the plan Oct. 30. Board members said that date is “ambitious,” but Hill didn’t rule it out.
“We’ll do it correctly,” Hill said. “I’ve seen staff do things over the years correctly and quickly.”
Rather than, in his view, rush the new plan, Malone said, it would be better for the board to focus on keeping the choice plan for next year and making some revisions.
Sutton said it might take a couple of months before the plan is adopted. But he said there’s no doubt the board will have an assignment plan in place for the 2013-14 school year.
“If we’re really focused, make sure we’re doing our due diligence, we will be able to get it done,” Kushner said.
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.