During the past 20 years, the Wake County school system has aimed for the stars, working to match the excellence of marquee national school systems such as Virginias Fairfax County and Marylands Montgomery County.
Instead, Wake County has seen its academic achievement and systemwide resources fall further behind those better-funded suburban systems near the District of Columbia. While remaining one of the better-performing school districts in the state, Wake has even lost much of its classroom-performance edge over the rest of North Carolinas systems. Wake leaders and voters from both political parties have shown no appetite for the dramatic increases in local funding it would take to match upper-end systems in teacher pay, class size and per-pupil spending, which is down 5 percent since 2009.
Now, instead of working to become the next high-achieving Fairfax or Montgomery, Wake school leaders are busy trying to sell a school-construction program of more than $900 million just to keep up with continued growth of thousands of students each year.
The system and school board also face the challenges of bringing a new superintendent on board, with the hiring expected this week. Theyre also developing a new student assignment plan and operating with unprecedented competition from charter schools, private schools and home schooling. Meanwhile, state legislators are working through bills that would take away some of the school boards authority and potentially make alternatives to traditional public schools more attractive within Wake County.
Theres no reason why Wake County cant improve its quality and performance if its willing to provide the resources, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the Virginia-based American Association of School Administrators and a former superintendent in Fairfax County.
Once hailed as near top
Historically, Wake has wanted to be seen as a major player in education. The system gained national recognition in the 2000s from a student assignment policy that aimed to limit the percentage of low-income students at individual schools.
With test scores at an all-time high, Wake made the front page of The New York Times in 2005 and won praise in a book titled Hope And Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.
Generally, when Wake County is mentioned outside of North Carolina, Wake County had a national reputation for coming up with a novel way of desegregating schools by income and not race, Domenech said.
Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and a former Democratic Wake County commissioner, called Wake one of the strongest school systems in the nation.
We care about children, Brannon said. We value diversity. We have strong programs. We value choice. Those arent the kinds of things you would find in other parts of the country.
The success of the school system has helped attract employers from other states. It has also become a selling point for the local housing market, particularly for a range of neighborhoods in different parts of the county that feed into the systems top schools.
State Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, lauded the district during speeches opposing bills that would change Wake County school board election districts and allow the Wake County Board of Commissioners to take over authority for school construction from the school board. Democrats have called the Republicans move a power grab.
Blue called Wake a school system thats constantly recognized and congratulated and a county that ... (has) figured out how to be the leaders, not just in this state but in the country, in the 21st century.
Tara Lane, who moved to North Raleigh from Florida in August, wont say that Wake is one of the best school systems in America. But she doesnt regret leaving the Broward County school system, which includes Fort Lauderdale, to bring her two sons to Wake.
Its an excellent school system, she said. There are different portions that its very good at.
Wakes reputation helped to ensure national coverage when Republicans gained the majority on the school board in 2009 and eliminated socioeconomic diversity in favor of a choice-based assignment plan. The new Democratic-backed majority that took office in 2011 scrapped the choice plan and put back into policy the goals of trying to limit the percentages of low-income and low-performing students at each school.
Ann Clark, one of three finalists for Wake school superintendent, praised the quality of Wakes school system during a community forum last week, even placing it above her home district in Charlotte.
You are the best district, the highest performing district in the state of North Carolina, said Clark, deputy superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. It pains me to say that, representing the second-largest district in the state.
Still, the boards actions over the past four years havent helped Wakes reputation, said school board Chairman Keith Sutton. Sutton, a Democrat, said the board is now trying to restore some of the luster that was once Wake County.
In spite of whats happened media-wise with the board, our system still continues perform at a high level, Sutton said. It still continues to thrive.
But that level of success isnt as high as it once was, fueling arguments from critics of the old diversity policy that Wakes success in the last decade was attributable to tests that were too easy and the concealing of poor performance by minority and low-income students.
Wake still is above the state average overall on state exams, but overall system passing rates are noticeably lower at the K-8 level since the reading and math exams were changed. In areas such as the performance of low-income students, Wake is now below the state average in elementary and middle schools. The achievement gap between white and black, Hispanic and low-income students is also wider now in K-8 than a decade ago.
At the high school level, Wakes graduation rate used to be 14 percentage points higher than the state average. But since 2006, Wakes graduation rate has dipped slightly, while the states rate has shot up. The states rate is only two-tenths of a percentage point behind Wake now.
Tim Simmons, vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit that calls itself a critical friend of the district, said some of the shrinkage can be attributed to hard work by the rest of the state. However, he said, it can also be attributed to growth that has increased Wakes size by 15,000 students over the past five years and led to the hiring of many new and inexperienced teachers.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, said people who say Wake is one of the best school districts in the nation dont have the evidence to back the claim.
There are some people in the system who have pride in it, he said. I have no problem with that. There are people who have exaggerated how good Wake is. They are the people I worry about.
Test scores are middling
Nationally, Wake has historically compared itself over the years with Fairfax and Montgomery counties, Gwinnett County near Atlanta and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. All five rank among the largest school systems in the nation, with Wake at 16th largest with 149,508 students.
There are few national tests that allow school districts in different states to compare their academic performance.
Of the quintet, Wake is in the middle of the pack in performance on the SAT college admissions exam, behind Fairfax and Montgomery counties.
Wake has the highest passing rate of the five districts on Advanced Placement exams, high school courses that students take to try to earn college credit. But Wake has a far lower percentage of students taking the AP exams than Fairfax, Montgomery and Gwinnett counties.
Wake County is a very, very good school system with the capacity to become great, said Wake school board member John Tedesco, a Republican. Among the nations 100 largest districts, we are certainly a national leader. But you have to look at who else is in that group: Cleveland, Detroit and Memphis.
Per-pupil spending lags
One area where Wake clearly lags behind Fairfax and Montgomery is in how much is spent annually to educate each student. Those two systems spend more than $13,000 per pupil, while Wake spends less than $8,000 per student.
During the past few years, Wake has been getting fewer dollars per student from the state and county because of recession-tightened budgets.
According to state figures, Wake spends $7,880 per student, a 5.3 percent drop since the 2008-09 school year.
While higher per-pupil spending doesnt automatically translate into higher academic performance, more money allows school districts to increase the academic programs and services they can offer. It has become a way to measure how much communities are willing to support public education.
Wake ranks 101st out of the states 115 school districts in per-pupil expenditure, based on local, state and federal dollars, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. Thats in part because the state gives proportionally less money to large districts in more affluent areas.
It would take an extra $81 million per year, not counting the amount to cover the growth of thousands of new students annually, for Wake to reach the state average of $8,436. That $81 million would represent a 7 percent increase in the annual school budget.
One Triangle school district has chosen to significantly boost funding on its own. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system ranks first in local dollars per student, using a special tax paid by residents to boost its spending to more than double the amount per child that Wake spends.
Regionally, Fairfax and Montgomery get the majority of their funding from the county, the opposite of what happens in Wake and most North Carolina school systems.
Fairfax and Montgomery are generally perceived to be model counties, and their performance demonstrates that, said Domenech, the former Fairfax County superintendent. Their communities are willing to provide them with the resources they need.
This year, because of rapid growth, Wake will likely get $170 less per student from the county than it did five years ago.
Wake commissioners havent raised the county property tax rate for four straight years. This years proposed budget doesnt include a tax increase.
$26,000 gap for teachers
The bulk of the pay that North Carolina teachers receive comes from state dollars. Wake, like some districts, supplements the state pay with local money which can help attract and retain the best teachers who might choose to work in a higher-paying district or change careers.
With the extra funding, the average teacher salary for Fairfax is $18,000 more than Wake. In Montgomery, its $26,000 more. A salary of $75,000 in Montgomery would equate to about $54,500 in Raleigh, primarily because of the difference in the cost of housing, or 18 percent more than Wakes average of $46,245.
It would take about $83 million annually, or $176 more per year in property taxes for the average Wake County homeowner, to have the average teacher salary in Wake reach $54,500.
Larry Nilles, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, isnt asking to match Montgomery Countys salaries. But he said Wake teachers should at least be paid enough so they dont have to take second jobs. He said he has been a summer lifeguard for several years, and many of his colleagues do extra work on the side.
I dont know if were going to ever pay as much as Montgomery, Nilles said. But the people we entrust with taking care of our children for 180 days a year shouldnt have to worry about finding time to come home and be with their kids and their partner because theyre working an extra job.
Stoops, of the John Locke Foundation, said comparisons of Wakes funding with Fairfax and Montgomery arent valid because the two districts, both near Washington, D.C., are in areas with much higher costs of living.
Is student learning being harmed because Wake is receiving less than Fairfax and Montgomery? said Stoops, whose wife is a Wake teacher. I just dont see any evidence thats the case.
Taxes lower for Wake
But for some parents who relocated to Wake, differences are noticeable.
Rachel DiClementes family moved from Hightstown, N.J., to a home near Fuquay-Varina in 2008. DiClemente said she was surprised that when she went to the first school open house in Wake that her childrens teachers were asking for Walmart gift cards, tissues and other basic supplies.
DiClemente said she has also encountered much larger class sizes and more outdated textbooks than in New Jersey. She traces the difference to the $1,500 a year in property taxes she pays for a home thats almost double the size of the one in New Jersey, where she paid $7,000 a year in taxes.
Being a Northerner, raise my property taxes and give it to the schools, she said. They need it. A lot of the problem is money.
Crystal Hartzell has had a similar experience since moving from Plainsboro, N.J., to Cary in 2011 with her two children. Her property taxes here are $2,000 a year, compared with $12,000 up north.
Hartzell said she hasnt been able to get the same kind of speech therapy services for her daughter, a kindergarten student, that she got in Plainsboro, where the school district subsidized a preschool speech therapy program.
But shes still glad she made the move.
I am very happy with Wake, she said. I wouldnt go back. I feel that theyre just as capable here of getting a good education as they would be in Plainsboro. The difference is they have more money to pay for programs than Wake County does.
A debate over money
Brannon, of Great Schools in Wake, said that the school district weathered the recession well but that its time for the district to get a big increase in funding to meet its needs.
This is a premier place for a superintendent to come, she said. We definitely need to up our game on funding. That would be part of the superintendents job to make that case.
Tedesco, the Wake school board member, agreed that more dollars would be a plus. But he says Wake first needs to deal with issues such as expanding access to advanced programs all across the district and reaching out more to the districts most vulnerable students.
Anyone who thinks that we can solve our problem with funding has a narrow-sighted view of the district, he said. We need to solve the nuts-and-bolts issues in the district.
But Sutton, the Wake school board chairman, said more funding is one way to help move the district forward.
With the help of the new superintendent, Sutton said, Wake can move to the next level.
I think we are a good district, he said. I think we are one of the better districts in the nation. There are things we can do better.