Wake County school board members were not impressed by what they learned of the public schools in Austin, Texas, during their recent visit.
Some school board members were among the more than 140 people who participated in last month’s Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce 2015 Inter-city Visit & Leadership Conference to see what they could learn from Austin. Unlike the 155,000-student Wake County school system,the 86,000-student Austin Independent School District covers just the city limits.
“It was striking to me how the folks in Austin were energized about talking about many aspects of their city except for their public school system,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “They didn’t seem to know much about their public schools and they didn’t seem to want to talk about them. They are very divided there – some low-performing schools that are racially identifiable – and it seemed a Achilles heel for that region.
“I came away not learning much about what to do in education, but also I think a lot of the commissioners and other business leaders I talked with came away further convinced of the wonderful structure we have for a unified county public school system that we have in Wake County. I think they appreciate it more when they see other models.
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“I would think it’s important for us to communicate that to the greater Wake County community that the strength of having a unified public school system that strives to have excellence and inclusiveness for all children in our public school buildings.”
The Wake County and Raleigh City school systems merged in 1976. Transplants from other communities who are used to municipal school systems are at times surprised by how there’s a county system in Wake and much of North Carolina.
School board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said she was also surprised at how little the Austin schools were discussed on the trip. Instead, more time was spent on issues such as transportation and economic development.
“I think we can continue to capitalize on the support that we have from our community here in Wake County that Austin did not seem to have while we were there,” Johnson-Hostler said.
School board member Jim Martin was sharper in his critique of Austin’s schools.
“I think we did learn a lot about education,” said Martin, a chemistry professor at N.C. State University. “What we didn’t learn is what to do. We learned some things what not to do. And again as an educator, I think that’s an important part of education is learn from everything.”
Wake County Commissioner John Burns also warned in a letter to the editor that Austin’s public schools are an example that this area should avoid.
Burns said that because Austin is only a city district, more than 70 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. He said that Austin isn’t able to promise new businesses that an educated and well-trained workforce is already there.
“Austin offers Wake County several lessons,” Burns writes. “First, investment in a community-wide education system is vital to sustaining economic growth. Being able to recruit businesses on the strength of our workforce has been a trump card for the Triangle for years.
If we fail to invest in our school system, we risk turning it into a warehouse for poor children. True economic growth brings opportunity for all levels of society.”