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March 25, 2010  

      

Proximity trumps balance in new plan

A couple of weeks ago, school board Chairman Ron Margiotta told the Northern Wake Republican Club that no one should be surprised the new school board is moving away from past efforts to maintain diversity in schools.

“No one should be shocked. This was the main issue in the campaign of those four candidates," he said, referring to the new board members who joined Margiotta in December to create a five-member majority.

Indeed, few people were shocked as the board majority held to a tightly-scripted game plan and approved the conceptual framework Tuesday for new community-based assignment zones. There were plenty of people, however, who were angry and bitterly disappointed.

Under unusually tight security, dozens of speakers waited six hours or longer for the right to speak to the board for two minutes each. Professors, researchers, clergy, teachers, past school board members, civil rights attorneys, parents and business owners paraded to the podium. The plan’s opponents outnumbered supporters four to one.

But as Margiotta told the Northern Wake Republican Club, there was never much doubt how this would turn out – no matter how much the crowd applauded and jeered or how many student protesters were arrested in the hallway. In a series of votes, the majority routinely beat back efforts to significantly change the framework of the plan.

Amendments to assess the costs of the plan, review related research, hold school poverty levels below 75 percent and “ensure that schools will not become segregated” were all defeated.

An amendment that requires public hearings before final adoption of any plan was approved. The group could also agree on the promise of “a sound, basic education” – language that comes from a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling defining a student’s constitutional rights.

Margiotta expects much of this debate will land in the courts. It’s quite possible the questions, arguments, amendments and motions presented Tuesday will be a part of those proceedings.

Regardless, the philosophical differences that must be bridged – either in court or through compromise -- were articulated early in an exchange between board members Keith Sutton and John Tedesco.

Sutton framed the disagreement by offering a substitute resolution that he felt addressed the competing interests of stability, school proximity and diversity. The resolution assumes that student assignment and issues such as the achievement gap, teacher recruitment, student suspensions and other classroom outcomes are intertwined. 

“If we worked together now on all these issues we could save ourselves a lot of work down the road,” he said.

Tedesco complimented Sutton for his efforts, but flatly rejected the premise that issues of poverty and achievement can be addressed through student assignment.

Any plan that considers economics when assigning children, Tedesco said, inherently drives down expectations for poor children. It is, therefore, discriminatory in itself.

Echoes of this debate went back and forth across the table throughout the rest of the conversation. The board minority eventually ran out of amendments to offer and the main resolution was approved 5-4.  

Work will start immediately on a community-based assignment plan to be presented within nine to 15 months. The economic balance within a school will not be considered.

After the vote was taken, Margiotta made special mention of Sutton’s ideas, saying they deserved further review. But it wasn’t going to happen Tuesday evening. That wasn’t part of the script.

 

Magnet criteria set for change

One immediate change triggered by approval of the community-based assignment plan is the elimination of a student’s economic status when considering who will fill magnet school seats next year.

Under previous policy, some students were given priority depending on whether they qualified for subsidized lunches. Considering a student’s eligibility for subsidized meals when making magnet selections is one way the district tried to maintain socio-economic balance within a school.

But a new policy introduced Tuesday simply strikes out all language about a child’s “SES” – or socio-economic status – and relies instead on efficient use of space. Students from the most crowded schools get preference over those who come from less crowded schools under the new proposal.

Details of the new policy will be discussed by the board next week along with preliminary numbers about this year’s magnet application pool. It’s unclear exactly what effect the new approach will have on the magnets, although the numbers suggest certain schools would be overcrowded. The figures are not broken down by race or income.

The change was made by the school district’s staff in anticipation of Tuesday’s vote approving community-based assignments. A small part of that resolution, which otherwise deals with the procedures for setting up assignment zones, immediately prohibits the use of economic status when deciding who is accepted in “optional choice” schools.

Board Attorney Ann Majestic has made it clear that changing the magnet criteria as part of a broader resolution is a highly unusual approach. She has also made it clear that the decision is considered a change in policy, which is one reason it required two separate votes by the board. It is not, however, considered illegal.

Dropping the use of income presents another immediate issue, in this case for the school board. That is because the old language was used in securing federal money to operate the magnet program.

The board needs to come up with some sort of language within the next month affirming its intent to avoid "minority group isolation” or it risks losing $1.9 million in federal money it was already awarded.  Failing to replace the language about diversity will also make it more difficult to obtain future grants.

 

Noteworthy

… It’s no longer novel when the Wake County school board makes national news these days. The Today Show, the Los Angeles Times and The Christian Science Monitorhave all run pieces this week about Tuesday’s vote. Wake County apparently does not look like a happy place to outsiders.

… If you have any sacred cows in education that you feel need protecting, a recent commentary in Education Week will probably challenge your thinking. Titled “It’s the Classroom, Stupid,” the article looks at schools from a business perspective and concludes classroom mismanagement is the basic reason most reforms fail. In this case, that means failing to run schools in a way that supports the most important task: teaching.

… There presumably will be a day when most of the attention shifts back to students in Wake County, and when it does a recent feature story in Education Week about the use of smart phones as a tool to teach math is worth remembering. Students at a high school near Jacksonville, NC, use smart phones as part of a program called Project K-Nect. The phones, which can access the web, have spawned math blogs, video demonstrations and lots of instant messaging about –  of all things – school work. Teachers report an increase in both test scores and a willingness among students to work together.

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Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues. Most of its financial support comes from local business. Send comments to Tim Simmons, VP Communications, at  tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org