Chamber of Commerce vs. Tea Party over Wake County schools
By Richard D. Kahlenberg
Wake County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Raleigh and the surrounding suburbs, has made headlines in recent months as a new Tea Party-backed school board majority has sought to dismantle the district’s longstanding and nationally acclaimed school integration plan.
The policy had the goal of limiting the proportion of low-income students in any given school to 40 percent and was based on decades of research finding that concentrations of school poverty are bad for education.
As Stephanie McCrummen noted in a front page story in The Washington Post last month, one tea party school board member argued that a new plan that would allow much higher concentrations of poverty could actually improve the prospects of low-income kids.
“If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," said board member John Tedesco. "Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it."
This approach flies in the face of mountains of research finding that one of the best things you can do for a low-income student is give her a chance to go to a middle-class school, where peers expect to go on to college and encourage achievement, parents are in a position to be actively involved in school affairs, and excellent teachers educate students to high expectations.
A recent Center for American Progress study found that Wake County’s integrated system produced greater bang for the educational buck than nearby Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s system, which has re-segregated in recent years.
The new school board’s proposal to re-segregate the public schools in Wake County was criticized by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who noted that the Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating. Television comedian Stephen Colbert also got into the act, parodying a conservative proponent asking, “What’s the use of living in a gated community if my kids go to school and get poor all over them?”
The new school board majority has become something of an embarrassment to Wake County residents. In addition to the civil rights investigation, the system’s accreditation is being questioned because of board member squabbling.
A recent poll of local residents found that the school board is viewed unfavorably by 51% of residents, compared to 29% who view the board favorably. Meanwhile 94.5% of parents surveyed in Wake County said they were satisfied with where their children currently attend school.
Civil rights groups, education researchers, teachers, parents and advocates of magnet schools have been protesting for months. But now the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Raleigh, hardly a radical organization, has jumped into the fray. On Friday, the Chamber, along with an education foundation, the Wake Education Partnership, released a plan that would use public school choice to maintain diverse schools.
The proposal, devised by consultant Michael Alves, seeks to address some logistical and political problems with the old diversity plan, while at the same time maintaining integrated schools.
The main problem with the old plan was that it did not accommodate Wake County’s extraordinary growth in student population. As the district, the 18th largest in the nation, grew by leaps and bounds, students were constantly reassigned to fill new schools. Some were even assigned mandatorily to schools with a year-round calendar, sparking a political firestorm. Some blamed the constant shuffling of students on the diversity goal, but in fact diversity considerations influenced only a very small fraction of student assignments.
The Chamber’s plan calls for a system of “controlled choice,” which fills seats in all schools, including new ones, not through mandatory assignment but through public school choice. The district, which ranges over 864 square miles, is subdivided into three manageable areas within which most school choices will be made. Each of the areas contains a portion of the city of Raleigh and outlying areas and the three zones are roughly comparable in demographic makeup.
Under the proposal, parents would not automatically be assigned to a school and instead would be asked to make 5 choices, ranking their preferences. In other controlled choice plans that Alves has designed, 90% of parents get one of their first couple of choices. Under the new plan, choices would be honored with an eye to ensuring that schools are balanced not by race or socioeconomic status but by student achievement level.
Because students who are applying for Kindergarten haven’t yet been tested for achievement, the plan looks at several factors that make students “at risk” for low achievement: having no pre-school experience, having parents with low levels of education or low income, being raised in a single parent household, having limited English proficiency, or being diagnosed with a learning disability.
Within the parameters of a system that seeks a balance of at-risk and non-at risk students, priorities are provided to students who have siblings in a school and live nearby, both sensible accommodations. Alves said that in other controlled choice plans, roughly half of parents choose the school closest to them and half choose a school further that offers a particularly attractive theme or pedagogical approach. In this way, the system can reconcile both choice and diversity.
The latest developments in Wake County are significant for two reasons.
First, they underline an important split in the conservative education community – between Tea Party enthusiasts who are willing to re-segregate public schools and the business community, which understands the value of school integration.
Business leaders realize that concentrations of poverty and at-risk children are bad for education. They also want employees who will be able to get along with people of different backgrounds.
Finally, they are looking for a way to distance themselves from Tea Party activists who have made Raleigh an object of national ridicule. Being the subject of civil rights investigations and accreditation checks and the butt of jokes by late-night comedians hurts in the effort to recruit new businesses and employees to the area. A coalition of business leaders, allied with civil rights activists and teachers, could breathe new life into the push for fair and integrated schools.
Second, the proposed plan sketches a politically palatable model for preserving diversity in our schools in coming years. People want choice, they want stability and they want to avoid re-segregation of schools. The Chamber has shown the way forward on how to achieve all of these objectives at once.
The Chamber’s plan has received a respectful hearing from a variety of factions on the school board and is being studied by the superintendent’s office. The plan is a long way from being adopted, but it presents a credible third way between the constant reassignment of students under the old system and the tea party’s proposed re-segregation of Raleigh’s schools.
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| February 17, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: Equity, Guest Bloggers, Poverty | Tags: center for american progress, chamber of commerce, chamber of commerce school plan, charlotte-mecklenburg's schools, desegregation plans, high-poverty schools, raleigh schools, resegregation in schools, tea party, tea party in raleigh, wake county schools
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